GUN CULTURE

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on the devastation and slaughter in Ukraine, one gun massacre after another continues in the United States.

Just yesterday a young eighteen years old gunman murdered at least 19 children and 2 teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. So far there have been 27 school shootings this year. Yesterday’s was the deadliest, since a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. There is little known about the motivation of yesterday’s killer, except that he wanted to kill. Before going to the school he shot his grandmother. He had purchased the guns right after his eighteenth birthday.

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, when another 18 years old gunman opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. killing 10 people and injuring three more, we know he was motivated by white supremacy. Almost all of the Buffalo victims were Black. Prior to the shooting he had posted a manifesto, inspired by “the great replacement theory,” a racist conspiracy spreading in a number of Western countries.

The great replacement theory is the far-right belief that people from minority populations are replacing the existing white, largely Christian population. It inspired not only the Buffalo shooter but earlier mass killings, including the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso and the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.

Ironically many white Christian nationalists are strong supporters of “the great replacement.” There is absolutely nothing “Christian” about it. The historical Jesus – Yeshua – was not even white. He was a dark-skinned, broad-minded, and courageously prophetic man. He was hardly a racist, which was the main focus of his Good Samaritan account. And Yeshua clearly and painfully understood the importance of a separation of state and religion.

The term “the great replacement” was coined by a French nationalist writer, Renaud Camus (b. 1946), in his 2011 book titled Le Grand Remplacement. Camus argued that white Europeans are being “colonized” by non-white immigrants and face a threat of “extinction.” Former U.S. President Trump propelled the replacement theory into mainstream U.S. politics with his fear of white U.S. Americans being “replaced by minorities.” And most recently it has inspired Marine LePen and her party in France.

The extremist ideology that non-white immigration will ultimately destroy white values and western civilization has found favor with the top media figure on Fox News as well as quite a collection of politicians, who have convinced themselves that Democrats are operating an open-door immigration policy to “replace” Republican voters with people of color.

U.S. society is going through very difficult days. More than ever there is a great need for well informed people, for critical thinking, and for courageous speech and action.

President Joseph Biden warned about U.S. racism on Tuesday, May 17th, when he observed: “White supremacy is a poison … and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.” I agree with the President but would stress that the country is facing twin inter-connected socio-cultural poisons: racism and gun violence. During an address from the Roosevelt Room at the White House after news of the yesterday’s mass killing in Texas, President Biden said: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

Well, it is indeed a strange culture that bans books and bans Cuban cigars but not guns. I call it the gun culture.

For your summer reading about the gun culture, I recommend: Enough!: Solving America’s Gun Violence Crisis by Thomas Gabor (Center for the Study of Gun Violence, 2019). The author is a Canadian criminologist who was a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa for thirty years. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1983. Since his retirement, Thomas Gabor has worked as a consultant on gun violence, crime, and related issues.

And for summer reading about racism and replacement, I recommend a book by Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and an international authority on the white-power movement. Her book is: Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Harvard University Press, 2018)

I am not running away from the issues, but I am running away from “For Another Voice” for a while. In keeping with my annual tradition, I will be away from my blog for about a month. Periodically, we all need time to relax, reflect, and refresh body and spirit.

I hope to be back with you around the Fourth of July.

Many kind regards.

  • Jack

Thoughts About Abortion and Pro-Life

I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought.

I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992 that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

Well, I did write about abortion in February 2021. But in view of the heated and vitriolic debate about Roe v. Wade and a possible reversal of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, I would like to return to it this week.

When speaking or writing about abortion, I believe we need to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

We need a clear clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary U.S. anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and torture and ignore poverty, healthcare, and the environment.

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes just convenient rhetoric for avoiding the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues.

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. In a December 6, 1983 Fordham University lecture, Bernardin said: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” He challenged Catholics to view as “a seamless garment” diverse issues, not just abortion, but also nuclear weapons, the battle against poverty, and human rights violations at home and abroad. Bernardin was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977. Unfortunately Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” was criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion. More recently, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles criticized the “seamless garment” approach in 2016 because he felt it results in “a mistaken idea that all issues are morally equivalent.”

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%.

U.S. attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to a new poll by NBC, support for abortion rights has hit a new high, with 63% of U.S. Americans opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 5% of U.S. Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases. According to Pew Forum, 83% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

On Saturday, May 14, 2022, thousands gathered in Washington DC and at hundreds of events across the United States to rally for abortion rights, as a direct response to the leaked draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court indicating that it is positioned to overturn Roe v. Wade,

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. But it leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the U.S. abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate.

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person.

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and 40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors. The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females, because females are “defective and misbegotten.”

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed, I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there are situations in which abortion can be medically necessary due to serious problems connected with fetal development or to save the life of the pregnant woman. Then it is indeed a matter of personal conscience and decision-making.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes, where we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good.”

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.

And a final observation. The contemporary U.S. far-right wants to use the power of the government to enforce, on the majority of U.S. Americans, the beliefs of a radical minority of U.S. Americans. If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, it is very likely that the far-right will also push to have the Supreme Court reverse the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. In either case, Pandora’s Box will be thrown wide open.

  • Jack

PS I am posting this reflection on Thursday, May 19. My next reflection will be on Thursday – Ascension Thursday – May 26. Then I will take my annual summer R&R.

Evolution and Human Understanding and Ethical Behavior

A friend commented about my post of last week: “You seem overly strong on evolution.”
Perhaps I am but as an historical theologian I am very much aware of changes in human understanding and ethical behavior. I see these changes as part of what I would call cultural evolution. Evolution is about much more than the arrival of the first human beings. It is about our evolving understanding of what it means to be a human being, about what is natural or unnatural, and about what is moral or immoral behavior.

Slavery, for example, once existed in many cultures. In the earliest written records, slavery is simply an accepted institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE) prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive slave. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.
Even after the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many Southerners refused to revise their proslavery views. In their minds, slavery had been divinely sanctioned. They pointed to texts like Ephesians 6:5-8 where Paul states: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

Today we can affirm that slavery is neither natural nor moral.

Another example of cultural evolution is moving away from misogyny and the cultural denigration of women. The historical Jesus taught and acted in ways we might consider feminist today. Jesus promoted equality, showing that women and men are equal in dignity and value and spiritual depth. Women were the first official witnesses that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nevertheless by the second century, as Christianity moved into the Patristics Age, strongly influenced by “Church Fathers” like Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) who said that being a female is a curse given by God, the virus of misogyny began to infect church leadership. It lasted a long time.

Even medieval Christian giants, like Thomas Aquinas, were distorted and demeaning misogynists. Aquinas often cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” And Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten. (ST Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1)

In Western culture misogyny has lasted a very long time. I was surprised and amazed, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a draft opinion obtained and published last week by Politico, had based his justifications for overturning Roe v. Wade on Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English judge and jurist. Hale’s misogynist arguments have caused damage to women for hundreds of years.

Hale (1609 – 1676), just like a lot of fundamentalist extremists today, believed that women were made from Adam’s rib and that therefore God did not make women as autonomous beings but as obedient helpmates for men doing — whatever men wanted. In his treatise Historia Placitorum Coronæ (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”) Matthew Hale affirmed that marital rape was totally legal, because a man owned a woman’s body as an extension of his own and could do whatever he desired. Hale was also responsible for the trial and execution of women for witchcraft. His legal opinions would be used as a base for state execution of women and children both in England and in the Americas. Those women executed for witchcraft were overwhelmingly poor and single. Most were widows. Judge Hale and his contemporaries considered independent women a serious threat in society, because they were not owned and controlled by a father or a husband. That meant such women were unnatural, dangerous and often evil. Thanks to Hale, there was even a serious debate about whether or not women, who were not Christian, were even human beings.

Nevertheless, in our current phase of cultural evolution, most people would argue that misogyny is neither natural nor moral.

Just in my lifetime I have seen several evolutions in the understanding of human nature and human dignity.

I remember when black people, where I was growing up, were demeaned as inferior humans. I remember when I was in high school one of my uncles, using his favorite ethnic slur, said “Ni**ers have small brains” making them incapable of abstract thinking. Then he laughed and said “but Ni**er men have big sex organs, making them natural-born rapists.” Disgusting.

My uncle was not pleased, but I was delighted when, in college, my classmates and I happily participated in the 1963 civil rights march in Detroit. It was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

I remember, as a Catholic boy with a Protestant Dad, when the local Catholic priest told my fourth grade class that we as Catholic boys and girls “had the true faith” but those Protestants belonged to “a false religion.” I found it crazy and painful. And it is pure nonsense. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is much bigger than the Church of Rome.

And as an obnoxious kid, I remember joking about the “Red Skins” (Native Americans) and praising General George Custer (1839 – 1876) who fought Native Americans in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. He was killed along with all of the five companies he led. This action became romanticized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Jack was such an ignoramus. But his understanding and values have evolved. Change happens.

Cultural evolution continues. Today we defend LBGTQ rights. I do support same-sex marriage. In fact, right now 70% of U.S. adults support same-sex marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” That teaching, in time, will change. Remember that great churchmen once taught that women are “defective and misbegotten.” The Catholic Church is a slow-change institution.

Nevertheless, we do have changed understandings. Changed understandings, however, are not enough. Changed understandings demand changed behavior.

Jesus was not a racist. He was not a misogynist. He said nothing about homosexuality. He was prophetic, not just in words but primarily in his ethical behavior, showing acceptance, care, and compassion for all people. Jesus was radically transformative.

  • Jack

A Springtime Meditation about CREATOR and the Universe

(Vincent Van Gogh: Starry Night Painting, 1889)

Staring into space on a clear night with a bright moon and many stars, I began thinking about little Earth our big Universe.

It all started 13.8 billion years ago. God, whom we call CREATOR, made the decision to bring about space-time in a dimensionless point containing immeasurable mass-energy causing the Big Bang, first proposed in 1931 by the Belgian priest, physicist, and professor at the University of Leuven, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966).

The Big Bang was a big birth. It was when all matter, energy, time, and space began. It started at a single point and evolved into the expanding Universe that people today investigate with particle accelerators, microscopes, and telescopes. And some with wondering eyes, standing in the backyard on a cool but clear spring night.

CREATOR’S Universe is still in evolution. The size of the observable Universe is approximately 93 billion lightyears in diameter at the present day. Astronomers suggest there may be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe. The distance covered in one lightyear is 5.88 trillion miles. Our Earth is so tiny in comparison.

Our Christian tradition holds that God is CREATOR and sustains everything. We stand awestruck. CREATOR is beyond our imagination. The prologue to John’s Gospel reminds us: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” At the same time God, CREATOR, is personal and continually interacting with an evolving Universe and of course with an evolving humanity.

Reality is breath-taking if we remain alert, keeping eyes, minds, and hearts open. Sometimes I think people surrender to a kind of lazy theology. They give up really thinking about God and our experiences of divinity today. Lazy theology just repeats what theologians of the past have said, without giving it much thought.

In fact, in an active theology, there is an inseparable connection between theology, spirituality, and contemporary experience. It anchored in contemplative consciousness about the life-giving presence of CREATOR.

We stand today at a new threshold in human history. Certainly the shock and horror of terrorism and war continue to haunt us — such clear signs of the alienation and hatred that have too often characterized human history. Nevertheless, at the same time there are also reflections of the best in human nature, as people around the world continue to hold a vision of peace and justice and demonstrate the love and heroism that reflect a greater humanity. Perspective is important.

The epic of our evolving Universe, so often retold by scientists, theologians, and philosophers, is a still-developing story. No matter how it is described or what theories are proposed about it, evolution is a fact of life. The Universe continues to expand and evolve.

Humankind evolves as well. But it also operates at a level involving choice and conscious relationships with CREATOR and neighbors. Since the Big Bang, there have been three phases of evolution: material, biological, and transcendent. Now is the time to focus on the transcendent.

Transcendent knowing involves a recognition that we are essentially one with CREATOR and the evolving Universe. Staring into space a few days ago I had this strong feeling that now is the time to really ponder the transcendent. For many people, spirituality and the inner life are coming into focus more clearly. Spirituality is what brings about an inner change in a human being. Spirituality is not just talking about CREATOR but experiencing CREATOR. To do this we go from our heads to our hearts.

The cultivation of transcendent awareness creates a broader life perspective through which we can more wisely embrace new challenges and opportunities. Material for meditation…

Like his great Hebrew predecessors, Jesus spoke CREATOR’S message to a world in danger of going spiritually blind and deaf.

Life’s deepest meaning, Jesus claimed, is discovered in relationship to CREATOR and in the establishment of a just and caring society. The teachings of Jesus are dominated by his witness to CREATOR’S love for humankind and our need to let that love flow through us to others, even – difficult as it may be — to those who attack and torment us.

Yes, with wondering eyes staring into a clear and star-filled sky a few nights ago, I thought about many things. Older people do that.

I thought, for instance, about Yuri Gagarin (1934 – 1968) the Soviet pilot and cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into outer space on April 12, 1961. I remember his reportedly saying: “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God.” I was eighteen years old at the time and said: this guy’s religious understanding is short-sighted.Today I would say: he needed not only better education but spiritual direction.

And…I also thought about Vincent Van Gogh’s “Stary Night” and Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the glory of Creator. The skies display Creator’s craftsmanship.”

CREATOR travels with us in our human journeys, even when cruel human events cloud our vision.

  • Jack

Banning Books — Banning People

In the past nine months, censorship efforts in the United States, have reached an unparalleled intensity. More than 1,500 books have been targeted by rightwing politicians and activists, including the work of the Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison. Focusing on literature in U.S. schools, the bans have targeted books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues. A large number of the banned books have been written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.

Between July 1, 2021 and March 31 this year, 1,586 bans have been implemented in 86 school districts across 26 states. The book banning has been matched by a wave of rightwing legislation dictating what teachers can and cannot discuss in schools. In March this year, Florida passed a bill which forbids “instruction” on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Tennessee, the McMinn County School Board voted in January 2022 to remove Maus, a novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum.

Banning books paves the way for misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. All forms of thought-control. Ultimately, people who ban books are really banning people.

A number of states have also banned discussion about the impact of historical racism in the United States. Of the banned titles, 41% included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color and 22% directly address issues of race and racism.

Controlling information, of course, controls and shapes what people perceive as normal. Authoritarian political and religious leaders know that information management has a critical role in controlling a population.

In my Catholic tradition, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), launched in the sixteenth century, banned thousands of books and publications. The aim of the “Index” was to protect “the faithful” from theologically, culturally, or politically repugnant books. It included books about church history, biblical studies, and morality as well as publications by dangerous astronomers, like Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, and dangerous philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who stressed that reason is also the source of morality.

The twentieth and final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. It contained 4,000 titles banned for various reasons. Finally, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was formally abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966.

Launching his own campaign against book banning, a Deerfield Beach, Florida man said this week that he was more than angry after Florida lawmakers decided to ban 54 math books said to have incorporated dangerous topics such as critical race theory. Well known for his tongue-in-cheek protests, the man asked school districts in Florida to ban the Bible. He asked public school superintendents to immediately remove the Bible from classrooms, libraries, and from all instructional materials. He questioned whether the Bible is really age-appropriate because of the many Biblical references to murder, fornication, rape, and infanticide.

The rise of book banning is the tip of a much greater iceberg: a growing movement on the far-right to push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about culture, society, and history. The objective is not about discussing ideas objectively. It’s about not discussing them at all, because some ideas are dangerous.

So what is really going on in contemporary U.S. society? I see a culture war in which the ideological far-right, who believe many U.S. Americans – especially the “intellectuals” — have sold out to the Antichrist, want to use coercive force to crush the “liberal influence” over U.S. culture. Sometimes called the New Right, these crusaders are fighting against what they see as a dangerous leftist elite, shaped by Hollywood, academia, media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and even Silicon Valley.

The crusaders, encouraged by Fox News, are angry after decades of political defeats on cultural issues from abortion to gay marriage. And they were greatly energized by D. J. Trump.

Since the administration of former-president Trump – whom many supporters believe was sent by God — the strength of the contemporary U.S. political right, with its authoritarian and conspiracy-minded right-wing movements, like QAnon, has grown to about 24% of the current adult U.S. population. Today even about 8% of U.S. adults, or 21 million people, still support the phony belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that the Joseph Biden presidency is illegitimate.

Much to the frustration of the far-right, U.S. socio-cultural values are shifting in ways they do not like. Support for LGBTQ people and same-sex marriage, for example, continues to grow. In April 2015, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 61% of U.S. Americans supported same-sex marriage. As of June 2021 Gallup reported that 70% of U.S. Americans support same sex marriage. Most surprisingly Republicans, who have consistently been the party group least in favor of same-sex marriage, showed majority support in 2021 for the first time (55%). Democrats have consistently been among the biggest supporters of legal same-sex marriage. Today it is 83%.

As of this year, according to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual has increased to 7.1%, which is double the percentage from 2012. Most interesting, perhaps, roughly 21% of Generation Z — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBTQ.

Official Catholic teaching is still strongly anti-LGBTQ. Some contemporary books that are considered dangerous are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, and Cory Silverberg’s Sex is a Funny Word, a sex education book for 8-10 year olds. Other books being banned or challenged by parents are Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Not so surprisingly, Morrison, Johnson, Butler, and Angelou are African American, while Kobabe and Silverberg call themselves queer and Vuong is gay.

This past week, in Massachusetts, the Catholic school controversy continued to intensify. In the Diocese of Worcester, a Catholic school’s decision to fly Pride and Black Lives Matter flags brought a strong protest from Bishop Robert McManus. He ordered that Nativity School remove the flags or risk losing its Catholic affiliation. The school, run by Jesuits, has so far refused to do so and has found growing support in the local community.

Bishop McManus belongs to a group of culture warrior Catholic bishops and insists that the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags are symbols that “stand in contrast to consistent Catholic teaching” and promote “ideologies which are contrary to Catholic teaching.”

The President of Nativity School, Thomas McKenney, issued a statement that the school began displaying the flags in early in 2021 “to remind our young men, their families and Nativity Worcester staff that all are welcome here and that they are valued and safe in this place. It says to them that they, in fact, do matter and deserve to be respected as our Christian values teach us.”

Fortunately, there are indeed some prophetic U.S. Catholic bishops. In January 2021, eight U.S. Catholic bishops, declaring “God is on your side,” issued a statement in support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the bullying often directed at them. The bishops are Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, New Jersey; and Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Bishops John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky; Robert McElroy of San Diego; Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Edward Weisenberger of Tucson, Arizona, as well as two retired auxiliary bishops, Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Dennis Madden of Baltimore.

The bishops’ statement said LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates, are often homeless because of families who reject them, and are the target of violent acts at alarming rates. “We take this opportunity to say to our LGBTQ friends,” the bishops wrote, “especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you… Most of all, know that God created you, God loves you, and God is on your side.”

Frankly, those other bishops who so loudly protest against LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter are wrong. They are abusing their position and misleading people. Jesus didn’t say anything about LGBTQ. Jesus reached out in love to everybody. He made no distinctions based on gender or race. In the words and example of Jesus we find TRUTH. And his truth makes people free.

When authoritarian leaders control information or create false information, they misrepresent truth as whatever they want it to be. With controlled information, authoritarian religious and political leaders put people into confusing situations in which quite often they do not know what to do. They often then fall under authoritarian control.

Our challenge is to be well-informed promoters of shared knowledge and critical thinking. Our challenge is to support wise, well-informed, and courageous civic leaders. The issue is more than books. Not one single student has died in a mass reading project yet people are banning books instead of guns.

  • Jack

Russian Christian Nationalism

In last week’s post, I announced that I would be taking two weeks off. But on Good Friday I changed my mind. So…as in past years, I will wait to take some time off in June.

Christian Nationalism

On Good Friday, I was struck again by the sinister collaboration of authoritarian rulers and corrupt religious leaders in Jesus’ life experiences. And I began to reflect as well about the sinister religious and political collaboration so apparent in many countries today. Christian nationalism is a virus breaking out in many countries like, for example, in Brazil, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and the United States, where the former U.S. president’s campaign strategy, then and now, has always been to embrace Christian nationalism and spread as many lies as possible.

My immediate concern today of course is the war in Ukraine. The current Russia/Ukraine war has a Christian nationalism dimension that absolutely should not be overlooked.

This week, on the Monday after Easter (which for Orthodox Christians was the Monday after Orthodox Palm Sunday) the political scientist and member of the Russian State Duma, Vyacheslav Nikonov (b. 1956), praised the Russian war in Ukraine.

“In reality,” Nikonov said “we [Russians] embody the forces of good in the modern world because this clash is metaphysical…. We are on the side of good against the forces of absolute evil…. This is truly a holy war that we’re waging, and we have to win it and of course we will because our cause is just. We have no other choice. Our cause is not only just. Our cause is righteous. And victory will certainly be ours.”

Historical Perspective

History helps us understand the current Russia/Ukraine events. Around 980 CE, political leaders in what is today’s Ukraine were converted to Christianity by Orthodox Christians from Constantinople. The area around Kyiv became the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. That would change about five hundred years later.

In 1448, the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow became effectively independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and five years later, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Hagia Sofia (built in 537), the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, became a mosque. Then the Russian Orthodox Church and the Duchy of Moscow began to see Moscow as the legitimate successor to Constantinople.

The Patriarch of Moscow became head of the Russian Orthodox Church and all Orthodox churches in Ukraine came under the ecclesiastical rule of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Following the October Revolution of 1917, a communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was established in 1922. A key objective of the USSR was the elimination of existing religion, with the goal of establishing state atheism.


After Communism

With the collapse of the USSR in the years 1988 to 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church began to rethink its religious and national identity. Alexy (1929 – 2008), Bishop of Leningrad, became Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow in 1990 and presided over a surprisingly quick return of Orthodox Christianity to Russian society after 70 years of repression. About 15,000 churches were either re-opened or had been built by the end of Alexy’s tenure in 2008.

Patriarch Kirill

A major recovery and rebuilding of the Russian Orthodox Church continued under Alexy’s successor Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev (b. 1946), known today as Patriarch Kirill (Cyril). Under Kirill by 2016, the Church had 174 dioceses, 361 bishops, and 34,764 parishes served by 39,800 clergy. There were 926 monasteries and 30 theological schools.

The Russian Orthodox Church, thanks to Patriarch Kirill, has worked to fill the social and ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism by becoming a strong agent of national religious and political power. Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has established close ties with the Kremlin. Kirill now enjoys the personal patronage of President Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). Kirill endorsed Putin’s election in 2012 and calls Putin’s presidency “God’s miracle.” Today he stresses that Putin’s Russia is fighting the Antichrist.

In 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, however, something happened which Vladimir Putin couldn’t imagine, and something he and Patriarch Kirill did not like. A large group of Orthodox churches in Ukraine formed the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which claimed to be completely independent from the Patriarch of Moscow. This piece of post-Crimea-invasion history is important because it has shaped how Putin envisions Russia’s identity and its global role.

Mother Russia

Vladimir Putin wants to see the glories and geography of “Mother Russia” restored and strongly claims this is preserving “Christian civilization” against the secular decadence of the West. Between 1981 and 2000 the Romanovs, the last Imperial Family of Russia, were canonized as Russian Orthodox saints: Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Putin sees his ideological alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church essential for his goals. Just like the earlier Russian czars, President Putin wants to see Moscow as the center of a political and military empire blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a key element in his Russian Christian Nationalism. For this Putin needs an Orthodox Church in Ukraine that he can control.

At the start of Putin’s war with Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill gave a sermon in which he emphasized the God-given unity between Ukraine and Russia. During a March 6, 2022 sermon, Kirill stressed: “Much more is at stake than the liberation of the oppressed Russians… The salvation of humankind. ⁠People are weak and no longer follow God’s Law. They are no longer hearing his Word and his Gospel. They are blind to the Light of Christ.”

In weekly sermons on Russian TV, Kirill, regularly portrays the war in Ukraine as an apocalyptic battle against evil forces that have sought to destroy the “God-given unity of Holy Russia.” In March this year, he stressed it was “God’s truth” that the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus share a common spiritual and national heritage and should be united as one people — a direct echo of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defense of the war.

God’s Truth

Kirill has often said the future of human civilization itself is at stake, as he launches into angry tirades against gay rights, which he has often characterized as a great sin against God and a “clear denial of God and his Truth.”

Kirill Is a complex figure in Russian politics. He is smart, charismatic, and an ambitious operator. He has been associated with the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s main security apparatus. Kirill did set off a short-lived scandal, however, a few years after becoming patriarch when he was photographed wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch. That was later conveniently photoshopped out of the official photo by his Orthodox supporters. He and Putin have long been close allies. Putin has said that Kirill’s father, who was a priest in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), baptized him in secret in 1952, at his mother’s request. Putin and Kirill frequently appear in public together: at Easter services, visiting monasteries, and traveling to pilgrimage sites.

The sincerity of Putin’s Christianity has been strongly rejected by Sergei Pugachev (b. 1963) a Russian Orthodox Christian and a former member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. In recent years, nevertheless, Putin has increasingly highlighted his own religiosity: wearing a silver cross around his neck, kissing icons, and famously immersing himself in the freezing waters of a lake in front of television cameras. The icy dip was a brazen display of manhood and an Orthodox Christian ritual marking the Feast of Epiphany. Putin regards as his spiritual destiny the rebuilding of a Moscow-based Christendom. In a February 2022 speech he stressed: “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

Russian Orthodoxy has presented itself for centuries as the guardian of the “true faith” in contrast to Western Catholicism and Protestantism. Moscow, according to Russian Orthodoxy today, is the third Rome, the seat of the true Christendom today, after no. 2 Constantinople and no. 1 Imperial Rome.

Blessing Militarism

Certainly history will long remember the Russian Orthodox Church’s major role in the rise of Russian militarism and paving the way for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Already in August 2009, Kirill had presented an icon of the Virgin Mary to the crew of a nuclear submarine at the Russian shipyard in Severodvinsk. Russia’s military, Kirill said, “needed to be strengthened by traditional Orthodox Christian values… Then we will have something to defend with our missiles.”

Putin and Kirill share nationalist ideological values that, in their eyes, justify the war in Ukraine. Although they claim to be Christian, they never speak about Christian values. Never about Christian ethics and the bombing hospitals, the bombing apartment buildings and schools, and about the calculated abuse and slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. History will never record either of them saying “See how these Christians love one another.”

In a country where up to three quarters of the citizens consider themselves Orthodox Christians, Putin’s partnership with Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church is about strengthening Putin’s power and national support.

Curiously, during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion, in the United States, issued a statement asking the faithful to “refrain from excess watching of television, following newspapers or the internet” and “close their hearts to the passions ignited by the mass media.” In his statement, he used the term the Ukrainian land instead of Ukraine, clearly a deliberate denial of Ukraine’s independence. Born in Canada in 1948, Hilarion is a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York. He has close ties to the Kremlin and friendly ties with Vladimir Putin.

The Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill, in collaboration with President Putin, has worked hard to reinstate “traditional values.” Key among those “traditional values” are homophobia and anti-feminism with strong advocacy for women as “breeders.” In an interview a year after Putin became president, Kirill said feminism was a “very dangerous” phenomenon that could destroy Russia. “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which, in the first place, must appear outside of marriage and outside of the family,” said Patriarch Kirill, according to the independent Russian news agency Interfax.

Putin’s supporters claim he is a Christian nationalist who, as revealed in his autobiography, wears an Orthodox baptismal cross under his shirt, a memento from his mother who died in 1998. For many in the U.S. religious right, Putin is still admired as an authoritarian defender of a Christian civilization against secularism and particularly against Islam. But is it truly Christian? And is it really civilization?

Perhaps the most extraordinary contemporary monument to Russian Christian Nationalism is Moscow’s Victory Church constructed by the Russian Defense Ministry in 2020. It is the third-largest Orthodox church in Russia and was planned after the occupation of Crimea. The Russian military arms manufacturer Kalashnikov donated a million bricks to the project. Frescoes in the church extol the feats of Russian fighters from medieval wars to contemporary conflicts. It is a a very crass glorification of military might. Even an image of Jesus shows him as a fighter wielding a sword. Stained glass mosaics display the faces of prominent military leaders from the Imperial Russian Army.

Russian Christian Nationalism is anchored in an unholy alliance of distorted Christianity and abusive political power. It is not just dangerous. It is evil. – Jack

Easter 2022

In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being raised from the dead there is a common thread. The first witnesses were women: Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women disciples who accompanied them. May their Easter witness and joy enlighten, sustain, and guide all of us as we move forward in our life journeys.


Happy Easter 2022!


Jack

Anointing of the Sick

I am posting this a couple days early, on Wednesday of Holy Week, as I conclude my Lenten series on the sacraments. Today a brief historical reflection on anointing of the sick. In cathedrals around the world, sacramental oils are blessed this week, traditionally on Holy Thursday but now in many places earlier in Holy Week.

Oil and healing

In ancient times, olive oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes. It was applied to injuries to hasten the healing process. In Luke 10:25-37, for example, Jesus describes the compassionate Samaritan who pours oil, and wine, on the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead.

Jesus the Healer

Jesus told those whom he healed that their faith had saved them. One could say his ministry was “faith healing,” but with no pejorative connotations.

In the synoptic Gospels, Matthew records fourteen instances of healing by Jesus. Mark records six instances. In Mark 6:13, for example, Jesus sends the disciples out and they anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. Luke, traditionally said to have been a physician, recounts thirteen instances of healing. In John’s Gospel, we find three key healing accounts: the healing of a nobleman’s son who was at the point of death; the healing of a man at the sheep-gate pool in Jerusalem; and the healing of the man born blind.

Early Christianity

The ministry of healing was an important ministry in the early Christian communities. In New Testament apostolic letters we find a number of examples. In his letter to the Corinthians, written c. 53 CE, Paul mentions that some members of the community have the gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9). In the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus and written before 62 CE, James gave instructions to the Christian community about the ministry of healing: the elders (presbyters) were to be called and were to pray over the sick person and to anoint the man or woman with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14-16).

Third and Fourth Century

In a letter from the third century theologian Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE ), he mentions a Christian who cured with blessed oil. There are no other surviving healing texts from the third century. Liturgical documents from the fourth century, however, indicate that the oil blessed for those preparing for baptism was also used for curing spiritual and physical sickness. And there is a prayer for the blessing of oil for strengthening and healing in the early Christian document called “The Apostolic Tradition,” dating most likely from about 375 to 400 CE. The document was once thought to be the work of Hippolytus of Rome, and was dated before 235 CE when Hippolytus is believed to have been martyred.

Eighth Century

Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, nuns, and priests. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick remained primarily a lay practice.

Ninth Century Changes

Indeed, blessed oil had long been regarded as a substance through which People could be healed. But there had been no official ritual for anointing the sick. That changed in the ninth century.

The blessing of the oil became more solemn and more restricted. It was reserved to the local bishop on Holy Thursday. And the anointing of the sick became a strictly clerical ritual. Most significantly, however, the anointing with blessed oil becam an end of life experience, due no doubt to the high mortality rate and the fear of death, at this time.

The sacrament of the sick gradually lost its general healing dimension and became part of the “last rites” before death. Therefore it came to be called “extreme unction” or “final anointing.” Many people who might otherwise have benefited from the sacrament avoided it or waited until death was imminent before requesting it. It had become indeed a priestly ritual for the dying person.

The Council of Trent

Reacting to the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth century Council of Trent stressed that that anointing of the sick is a true sacrament, that it had been established by the historic Jesus, and that it was especially intended for the people in danger of death. Trent stressed that only priests were the “proper” ministers of anointing.

The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) reclaimed the original meaning of the Sacrament of Anointing that emphasizes the concern and care of the Christian Community and the healing power of Christ. It is intended not just for the end of life but for any time of serious illness or special need. The Council said as well that “extreme unction” should more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick” because by the 1960s it had become clear that the purpose of the sacrament had originally been for the sick and not just for the dying. The bishops at Vatican II also acknowledged – especially noteworthy — that this sacrament was not a strictly clerical ritual until the ninth century.

Contemporary Reflections

I very much resonate with the words of my, now deceased, sacramental theologian friend, Joseph Martos: “The only genuine way forward is to look away from ritual and to look instead at what is ritualized, that is, to look at life rather than liturgy and, indeed, to look at the communal lives of people in the church.”

Today we already have communal liturgical rites, in which the theme and focus are healing. I envision anointing rituals performed by ordained and non-ordained ministers/chaplains for people in hospitals, under hospice care or in homes. And more particularly, I would like to see regular informal rituals performed by parish nurses and lay ministers who regularly visit the sick.

Easter

In concluding my Lenten sacramental reflections, and as we now prepare for Easter 2022, I close with a prayer by the great mystic and visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179). She was a remarkable woman and indeed a great healer.

O Holy Power who forged the way for us!
You penetrate all in heaven and earth, and even down below.
You are everything in One.

Through You, clouds billow and roll, and winds fly!
Seeds drip juice.
Springs bubble out into brooks.
Spring’s refreshing greens flow — through You — over all the earth!
You also lead my soul into fullness.

Holy power, blow wisdom into my soul
And — with your wisdom — joy.

  • Jack

(I am taking some Easter time off and will return in two weeks.)

Ordination – Holy Orders

We begin with the disciples of Jesus

After his death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus (c. 4 BCE – 30 or 33 CE) understood their role as one of ministry and service to others. Sent out to spread the Good News of the Way of Jesus, they were called “apostles” from the Greek word apóstolos, meaning “one who is sent out.” In the earliest Christian communities men and women were apostles. There was a variety of ministries; but ordained priesthood was not one of them. There are no texts in the Gospels in which Jesus passed on a special power to perform sacramental actions such as baptizing, ordaining, or presiding over the Eucharist. Jesus gave no organisational blueprint for a future church.

First Three Centuries

As Christian communities developed, ministries and the ways of training and appointing ministers evolved to meet changing cultural conditions and changing social needs. Presbyters, from the Greek presbyteroi, were community elders. Supervisors-overseers (later called bishops) from the Greek epískopoi had oversight and offered guidance in community affairs; and deacons, from the Greek diaconoi, were helpers, entrusted with assisting people in the community by caring for widows, doing charitable work, catechising, and assisting in baptisms.

The letters of Paul, written between 48 and 62 CE, mention a variety of charismatic gifts which can be thought of as ministries benefiting the local Christian community (“the building up of the body”) even though the ministers were not ordained in our sense of the word. For example, members who could teach taught. Those who were good organisers administered community affairs. Those who had the gift of prophesy could speak out and tell the community what God wanted them to hear.

We know as well that men and women who were heads of households presided at the Lord’s Supper and hosted the gatherings in their homes. In Romans 16, Paul greets women leaders such as the deacon Phoebe, the apostle Junia, and the married apostles Priscilla and her husband Aquila. Clear evidence that women were respected leaders in the emerging Jesus movement.

The term “holy orders” comes from the Latin word ordo, which came to mean a rank or class. The Roman army had its military ranks and Roman society was divided into different social classes. The early Christian communities, however, were relatively classless and egalitarian. At least they were supposed to be. “Holy orders” however would come later in Christian history.

The approval and blessing of the community for diverse ministries was indicated by the laying on of hands. These ministries included preaching, prophesy, healing, working miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting what was said in tongues (see 1 Cor. 12:12-30, Ephesians 4:11-12, Romans 12:4-8; and 1 Cor 12:4-11). None of the men and women exercising these ministries were ordained. Acts of Apostles, written between c. 90 and 110 CE, mentions the laying on of hands for elders or presbyters, but here it was a form of blessing for those in ministry.

Although Peter (died c. 64 CE) was a key leader in the Jesus movement, the early Christian community in Jerusalem was not led by Peter but James (died c. 69 CE) who was Jesus’ brother. At the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE) Peter, Paul, and others were involved in lengthy debate. Peter gave his argument, but did not have the last word. James concluded the matter and then the vote was taken.

Most contemporary biblical scholars are in agreement with the Catholic scholars Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier that the Apostle Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Rome did not have a single supervisor-overseer (bishop) in Peter’s lifetime. When Peter arrived in Rome in the late 50s, Roman Christianity was already constituted with a number of communities with close ties to James and the Jerusalem Community. The much later Catholic assertion that Peter was the “first pope” is, frankly, the result of medieval historical conjecture. The “belief” began to be affirmed in the fifth century by Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440 until 461. The belief was then strongly reinforced by Gregory VII, Bishop of Rome from 1073 until his death in 1085.

End of Third Century

In the first three centuries of Christianity, we have no direct evidence of an ordination ceremony. By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. Initiation into these orders was accomplished through a rite of ordination that inducted a person into a local office in a particular community. It is important to clarify that ordination at this time was not about passing on some kind of sacramental power. It was a blessing on the minister and an assurance to the community that the ordained man or woman was competent, a genuine believer, and trustworthy.

There is ample evidence that in the West women were ordained as deacons and abbesses well into the Middle Ages. Women continued to be ordained deacons in the East and were ordained to a variety of ministries. Many contemporary scholars agree with Gary Macy, professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego, who argues that, during the first twelve hundred years of Christianity, women were also ordained as presbyters and bishops. I find the arguments in Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination well-documented and convincing.

Twelfth Century

In the 12th century, ordination changed from its earlier significance as a blessing for different ministries in service for a specific community to a bestowal of spiritual power “to confect” (make it happen) the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. The ordained now belonged as well to a higher social class. The classless and egalitarian church of early Christianity had disappeared.

Sixteenth Century

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento in northern Italy, issued several doctrinal pronouncements about ordination, reacting of course to the Protestant Reformation. The Tridentine bishops declared as required Catholic belief that ordination was a sacrament personally instituted by the historic Jesus. Trent stressed that the sacramental power of ordination was passed on through the tactile laying on of hands “apostolic succession” going back to Jesus’s ordination of the apostles – the very first bishops – at the Last Supper.

About tactile ordination, there was later some debate about whether or not it worked if the ordaining bishop imposed just one hand on the head of the person being ordained. The stress was therefore put on using both hands, just to make certain it really worked.

About the belief that the origin of ordination came from the hands of Jesus at the Last Supper, here are the key words from the twenty-third session of the Council of Trent, July 15, 1563:

The sacred Scriptures show, and the tradition of the Catholic Church has always taught, that this was instituted by the same Lord our Savior, and that to the apostles, and to their successors in the priesthood, the power was delivered of consecrating, offering, and administering his Body and Blood, as also of remitting and of retaining sins… For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in the most weighty terms, what things are especially to be attended to in the ordination thereof; and, from the very beginning of the Church, the names of the following orders, and the proper ministrations of each one of them, to wit, those of subdeacon, acolyte, exorcist, reader, and door-keeper, are known to have been in use; though not of equal rank….”

Trent stressed as well that ordination brings about an essential change in the ordained person, which elevated the ordained to a level above the laity, leaving an indelible mark on the person forever. The Tridentine bishops emphasised as well that bishops have the fullest and highest degree of hierarchical sacramental power. “Wherefore, the sacred and holy synod declares that, besides the other ecclesiastical degrees, bishops, who have succeeded unto the place of the apostles, principally belong to this hierarchical order. They are placed, as the same apostle says, by the Holy Spirit, to rule the Church of God; and that they are superior to priests.”

One should not forget of course the influence medieval feudalism still had on the church at this time. There were three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Bishops, in strongly patriarchal feudalism, held positions of power as feudal lords and as advisers to kings and nobles. Bishops generally lived with the same hierarchical powers, ornate dress, and luxuries as the nobles.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Apostolic succession became a key issue in 1896 when Pope Leo XIII surprisingly declared, in his papal bull Apostolicae curae, that all Anglican ordinations are “absolutely null and utterly void.” The reason was that, due to earlier changes in the ordination ritual in England, the Anglicans had lost their apostolic succession and their sacramental power. (I explored this more fully in my 1980s doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Leuven.)

On November 30, 1947, Pope Pius XII solemnly defined once again the official Catholic position about ordination as passed on through apostolic succession, in his Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis: “The only minister of this sacrament is the bishop, successor of the Apostles. The matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the imposition of hands by the bishop.’’

Even the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) in the conciliar document Lumen Gentium stressed apostolic succession: “Bishops have succeeded the apostles, not only because they come after them, but also because they have inherited apostolic power…”

Contemporary Reflections

Official contemporary Catholic teaching is still rooted in scholastic theology and medieval thinking. Leaders struggle with contemporary historical and theological understandings. Change often comes slowly.

Ordination, as a ceremony that celebrates the beginning of a professional life of ministry, could be much more flexible than it is today and open of course to men and women, married and unmarried, and of whatever sexual orientation. It could be for a specific number of years or life-long.

Thinking about ordination and pastoral ministry today, I would like to see some creative changes.

I would like to see ministerial appointments – ordinations — extended to religious educators, youth ministers, pastoral counsellors, social workers, and others whose faith and competence are well recognized. Perhaps some would only be ordained ministers for just a few years, and then others would carry on their ministry. Youth ministers for example could be ministers of confirmation. Pastoral counsellors could be ministers of reconciliation. Religious educators and youth ministers could preside at small group eucharists. Social workers could be ministers of the anointing of the sick during house calls and hospital visits as well as presiders at small group eucharists in residences for the elderly. I am sure there are many other creative ministry possibilities.

I would also suggest that the ordained be regularly evaluated and certified for a specific number of years. After say five years, the ordained man or woman could be re-certified, provided (1) he or she gave evidence of ongoing theological and pastoral education, and (2) had been re-evaluated and approved by the local Christian community.

Final Thoughts

What is celebrated in an ordination ceremony is not getting power over other people or one’s being elevated above the non-ordained. It is about making a commitment and responding to a call to preach the Gospel and care for others. It is about being of service to others, as genuine and credible ministers: helping others grow in and with the Spirit of Christ.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reviewed the meaning of sacraments and spoke about Christ as the sacrament of God and the church as the sacrament of Christ. This was a welcomed and strong movement in the right direction.

Nevertheless, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Catechisms of course are always provisional. After 30 years with this one, it is time for a new edition. We all grow in our understandings and need regular updating.

With the development of the sciences and the growth in human knowledge and understanding, it is time to put the medieval viewpoints and conjectures in a museum and move ahead with contemporary life and ministry.

Ordination ought to be what it was originally: a blessing and approval of the person for ministry. The ordained should be credible, trustworthy, and supportive guides for our Christian life journeys: helping us distinguish what confirms and strengthens faith and what undermines it and tears it down.

Yes, ordination has quite a history. But it is not just a Catholic issue. Regardless what Pope Leo XIII said in his nineteenth century encyclical, ordination exists in and belongs to all Christian traditions. Why? Because all Christians are truly successors in the faith, witness, and ministry of the men AND women who were apostles. That is what we best understand as Apostolic Succession!

  • Jack

Next week some concluding sacramental reflections, with a look at anointing of the sick.

Marriage

First Three Centuries

During the first three centuries of Christianity, when Christians married they did so according to the civil laws of the time, in a traditional family ceremony, and often without any special “church” blessing on their union. There was no liturgical ceremony for marriage, as we saw for baptism and eucharist.

Even though Constantine (272 – 337) gave bishops the authority to act as civil magistrates, there is little indication that they were given any marriage cases to decide. Marriage under Roman law was still by the mutual consent of the parties involved, which often meant by the consent of their parents.

Even after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, there was no great change in the civil marriage laws, with the bride’s father playing the chief role in the wedding ceremony.

The usual marriage custom was that, on the wedding day, the father handed over his daughter to the groom in her own family’s house. The bridal party then walked in procession to her new husband’s house for concluding ceremonies and a wedding feast. The principal part of the ceremony was the handing over of the bride, during which her right hand was placed in the groom’s, and the draping of a garland of flowers over the couple to symbolize their happy union. There were no official words that had to be spoken and no ecclesiastical ceremony.

Late Fourth Century

In the late fourth century, it became customary in some places in the Eastern Roman Empire for a presbyter or bishop to give his blessing to the newly wedded couple either during the wedding feast or before it. Presbyters or bishops were not in charge of nor did they conduct the ceremony. Their presence was honorary and not necessary for the marriage to be valid.

Interestingly, by the early fourth century most bishops and presbyters (priests) were married but told to abstain from sex. The Council of Elvira (306) in southern Spain is often seen as the first to issue a written regulation requiring married clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse. Its canon 33 decreed: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.” Nevertheless, even up into the tenth century most rural priests would be married and many urban clergy and bishops would have wives and children.

Fifth to Seventh Century

In the fifth century, especially in Greece and Asia Minor, the clergy began to take a more active role in the main ceremony itself, in some places joining the couple’s hands together, in other places putting the garland over them. Nevertheless, this ceremony was not mandatory. Throughout the seventh century, Christians could still get married in a purely secular ceremony.

East and West Developments

By the eighth century, liturgical weddings had become quite common in the eastern empire, and they were usually performed in a church rather than in a home. In the western half of the Roman Empire, however, marriage developed along quite different lines.

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (714 – 814), initiated legal reforms in his European empire, in both church and civil governments. In 802 Charlemagne passed a law requiring all proposed marriages to be examined for legal restrictions (such as previous marriages or close family relationships) before the wedding could take place. Clandestine marriages were a problem, especially in matters of property ownership.

Interestingly, Charlemagne himself had five wives in sequence, numerous concubines, and 18 children via his wives and concubines. Only three legitimate sons lived to adulthood. The youngest of them, Louis the Pious, survived to succeed him.

In 866 Pope Nicholas I (800 – 867) sent a letter to missionaries in the Balkans who had asked about the Greek Church’s contention that Christian marriages were not valid unless they were performed and blessed by a priest. In his reply Pope Nicholas stressed that in Rome the wedding ceremony took place in the absence of any church authorities and consisted primarily in the exchange of consent between the partners.

And…Pope Nicholas added that, after the wedding, there could be a Mass at which the bride and groom were covered with a veil and given a nuptial blessing. He noted however that a marriage was legal and binding even without any public or liturgical ceremony.

Eleventh Century

By the eleventh century, all marriages in Europe effectively came under the jurisdictional power of the church. It became customary to hold weddings near a church, often in front of the church, so that the newly married couple could go inside immediately afterward to obtain a priest’s blessing. But the priest did not officiate at the wedding.

Twelfth Century

In various parts of Europe, however, it was not until the twelfth century that a church wedding ceremony was conducted by the clergy.

At the entrance to the church, the priest asked the bride and groom if they consented to the marriage. Once they said yes, the father of the bride gave his daughter to the groom and gave him her dowry. The priest then blessed the ring that was given to the bride, after which he gave his blessing to the marriage. In some places, after the day’s festivities had concluded, the priest gave an additional blessing to the wedding chamber where the newly married couple would consummate their marriage.

In order to address again the problem of clandestine marriages, church laws increasingly required that all marriages be witnessed by the local priest and recorded in the parish registry, where baptisms were also recorded. This led to weddings being conducted in churches rather than in homes, and to priests being asked to bless the newly married couple.

Eventually, priests displaced the parents who had previously conducted the wedding ceremony. So, by the late twelfth century, the exchange of wedding vows had become a church ritual.

Nevertheless, marriage was still understood – as it is today – as a commitment between two people.

Marriage as a Sacrament

Historically, there was much medieval debate about the number of sacraments. The Benedictine monk and later cardinal, Peter Damian (1007 – 1072), for example, had listed eleven including the solemn blessing of kings. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141), a major theologian who spent most of his life at the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, enumerated close to thirty.

Hugh also said the ideal Christian marriage was one of union between husband and wife — preferably without any sexual intercourse. Hugh was strongly influenced by the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and considered sexual activity not only unnecessary but dangerous and sin-laden. His ideal historical marriage was that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her always celibate husband Joseph. Like many medieval churchmen, Hugh believed that Mary was a perpetual virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had mystically impregnated her.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that marriage was not found on some medieval lists of sacraments. In its place was the solemn consecration of virgins, which, like ordination could only be done by a bishop.

Marriage was often viewed negatively as a remedy against the desires of the flesh rather than positively as a way to become holy. Many church authorities, like Albert the Great (1200 – 1280) the teacher of Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274) considered sexual desires themselves as sinful or at best dangerous. Most theological writers held that sexual activity which was motivated by anything other than the desire for children was sinful. In general the western theological tradition taught that marriage was good even though sexual activity was usually sinful.

Gradually, however, the development of a Christian wedding ritual in the presence of the clergy and blessed by the clergy came to be understood as the official church’s positive affirmation of sexual relations in marriage. Sexual experiences within marriage were no longer considered sinful. But the primary purpose of marital sexual activity was understood as propagation not marital pleasure.

By the early thirteenth century, marriage and not the solemn consecration of virgins came to be viewed as one of the church’s seven official sacraments. This was confirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1213, the Council of Florence in 1439, and was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, meeting off and on from 1545 to 1563. Nevertheless, the bishops at Trent condemned the ongoing practice of priests getting married and strongly declared that Catholics had to believe that virginity and celibacy were superior to marriage.

Seventeenth and Later Centuries

To safeguard the permanence of marriage, Roman Catholicism gradually developed an elaborate system of church laws and ecclesiastical courts, which was challenged by the Protestant reformers as being unscriptural and unnecessary.

Today many Catholic theologians and canon lawyers say it is better to let the legal regulation of marriage be a matter of civic control, without denying that church weddings are important communal celebrations or that Christian marriages are sacramental. And…marriages are sacramental because two baptized people make a commitment to each other. The priest or minister is an official witness.

Civil Marriage Today

As part of the eighteenth century French Revolution, civil marriage in France became the legal norm. There could still be religious marriages, but only for couples who had already been married in a civil ceremony. Napoleon (1769 – 1821) later spread this custom throughout most of Europe. Today, a religious ceremony can be performed after or before the civil union, but it has no legal effect.

Divorce

People who marry in the Catholic Church today have about a 50 percent chance of later getting divorced. Divorce and remarriage have become big issues.

The apostle Paul allowed for the possibility of divorce in certain circumstances (1 Corinthians 7:15), and divorce was allowed by law in the Roman Empire even after Christianity became the state religion.

Some bishops from the second to fifth century cited Mark 10:11–12 to prove that divorce is a sin, while others cited Matthew 5:32 to prove that sometimes it wasn’t. Nevertheless, it is a matter of historical fact that for eleven centuries Christians in the Western Latin church could divorce and remarry, and that Christians in the Eastern Greek Orthodox tradition have always been able to do so.

The sixteenth century Council of Trent declared, however, that God instituted marriage and rendered it perpetual and indissoluble. “What God hath joined together let not man separate.” And the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

      “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”

Contemporary Pastoral Ministry

Times change. We acquire new knowledge and new insights about our human identity. In many respects we have better biblical and historical perspectives on the past. Our understandings evolve. Accepted patterns of human behavior do change.

Contemporary pastoral ministry confronts a number of issues and concerns. Some have been resolved in other Christian traditions but remain problematic in the Catholic tradition, because many in church leadership have difficulty understanding that all church doctrines are time-bound and provisional.

We all need to be alert to and reflective about the signs of the times. A golden thread does indeed link us with the past but it does not strangle us nor make us blind to new discoveries today and tomorrow. Some examples:

Unmarried but living together: For many people the wedding ritual is no longer a rite of passage from being single to being married. Many couples live together before getting married, as though they were married. In fact, such living together has become quite socially accepted by family and friends.

Unmarried couples often have children. How does one best minister to couples living together before marriage or living together without marriage? Are condemnation and discrimination appropriate pastoral responses? I hardly think so. Compassion, communication, and collaboration are better Christian responses. We grow and learn together.

More than ever, we need a strong and supportive pastoral ministry that promotes inter-personal marital growth, communication, and reconciliation.

From the 1500s onward, until around the year 1800, the average life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years of age. Marriage for life meant something quite different than it does today, when average life expectancy is around 80.

Yes times change. I can understand that some married people grow apart. Can’t they also grow back together with help and support? For some couples, of course, divorce and often remarriage with new partners becomes a fact of life. How do we best minister to the divorced? Should we have a ritual for that? And how can the Christian community best welcome and minister to the remarried?

And what about annulment? In Catholic church law, an annulment is a declaration of marital nullity: a legal declaration that a valid marriage was never contracted. Since the marriage was an apparently valid marriage, entered into in good faith by at least one of the partners, Catholic teaching is that any children born from such an invalid union are not considered illegitimate.

I have always seen annulment as a Catholic dilemma. What does one say about a couple seeking an annulment who had pledged their love and fidelity to one another and who had enjoyed the fruits of their relationship for more than a few years?

For Catholics who had married outside the church the annulment process in preparation for a second marriage in the church is very simple. But the practicing Catholic who gets married in the church has to endure a lengthy, arduous, and expensive process of a canonical trial. What is on trial in an annulment process is the bond of marriage. Did it or did it not take place at the time of the marriage?

When one thinks about the complexities of the annulment process, one can truly ask: “Is this what Jesus would have intended?”

And then of course, we have “same sex marriage.” One of my very good friends is a Catholic priest who always blesses same-sex marriages and considers them sacramental. Certainly, if the partners are baptized their marriage is a sacrament.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is officially opposed to civil and religious same-sex marriage. Pope Francis has called it an “anthropological regression.” Several well-known figures in the Catholic hierarchy actively oppose civil same-sex marriage as well as adoption by same-sex couples.

An official “Responsum” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated March 15, 2021 was quite clear:

It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the
unions between persons of the same sex….the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Nevertheless, there is strong and growing support from Catholics around the world for civil unions and same-sex marriage. Among North American and Northern and Western European Catholics, there is stronger support for LGBT rights — civil unions, civil same-sex marriage and protection against discrimination – than is found in the general population at large. Indeed…the signs of the times.

Agápē

The Greek word, agápē, is usually translated as “love” in the New Testament. It really means care or caring. When Jesus tells his followers to love one another, as we read for instance in John 13:34–35, he is telling them to care about each other and to take care of one another.

Jesus never said it mattered if someone was gay, lesbian, trans, or straight. Agápē is not a feeling word. It is an action word. Loving and committed people are bound together in agápē.

  • Jack

P.S. Next week we look at holy orders and ordination.