Antisemitism Yesterday and Today

Religious, social, and political antisemitism has a long history. Even many well-known historic Christian leaders were antisemitic. St. Augustine (354 – 430), the Bishop of Hippo who gave us the belief in Original Sin, argued that Jewish people should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Jesus Christ. Augustine’s anti-Jewish teacher, St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – 397, described Jewish people as a special subset of those people damned to hell. 

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was also fiercely antisemitic. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Luther recommended in his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses, he said, should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, Luther said that rabbis should be forbidden to teach “on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Much antisemitism has continued because people who could do something about it either simply ignored it or refused to take action against it.

Over the past ten years, there has been considerable criticism of Pope Pius XII (1876 – 1958) and his stance on Nazi antisemitism and Jewish genocide. In 2019, Pope Francis ordered the archives of Pope Pius XII opened, saying “The church is not afraid of history.” Pius XII was pope from from March 2, 1939, until his death on October 9, 1958, thus throughout the duration of WWII.

Since, the Vatican opened its sealed archives on Pope Pius XII’s pontificate in March 2020, research about Pius XII’s role during World War II has intensified. Most recently, according to Nicole Winfield the Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, reporting on September 16, 2023, newly discovered correspondence in Vatican archives suggests that Pius XII actually had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed each day in German occupied Poland. The letter from the priest, Lothar Koenig, to Pius XII’s secretary, a fellow German Jesuit named Robert Leiber, is dated 14 December 1942. 

This revelation undercuts the Holy See’s earlier-stated position that it could not denounce Nazi atrocities when Pius XII was pope because it couldn’t verify any diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities during his papacy.

It should also come as no surprise that procedures leading up to Pius XII’s canonization have now been halted. There will be more very serious study about Pius XII for sure, but right now we need to confront contemporary antisemitism.

Antisemitism, the hatred of Jews as a group or a concept, has existed in different forms throughout history. During the Middle Ages, antisemitism was religion-based and centered on inaccurate myths about Jews and Judaism. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this hatred evolved into a non-religious form, as the world became obsessed with nationalism and perceived racial differences. During the Holocaust, Jews were persecuted and murdered because of Nazi ideology about racial superiority.

I grew up in a community where people used the word “jew” to mean cheap, stingy, and a cheater. But antisemitism continues to persist to this day. 

Antisemitism in the United States:

Over the past five years antisemitic violence has greatly increased in the United States, and there has been a sharp rise in harassment, vandalism, and assaults aimed at Jewish men, women and children.

  • The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018, was an antisemitic terrorist attack in the form of a mass shooting, which took place at the Tree of Life synagogue. The perpetrator killed eleven people and wounded six, including several Holocaust survivors. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.
  • The Poway synagogue shooting occurred on April 27, 2019, at Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California on the last day of the Jewish Passover holiday. Armed with an AR-15 style rifle, the shooter fatally shot one woman and injured three other persons, including the synagogue’s rabbi.
  • On December 10, 2019, a shooting took place at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey. Three people were killed at the store by two assailants,
  • On the night of December 28, 2019, the seventh night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a masked man wielding a large knife invaded the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York and began stabbing the guests.
  • On January 15, 2022, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol, took four people as hostages in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. 
  • In February 2023, two Jewish men were shot when they were leaving religious services at two separate synagogues in the same predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 
  • Most recently, as reported by Media Matters for America (September 12, 2023), since Elon Musk, took over the company in 2023, X Corp — formerly known as Twitter — has placed numerous advertisements on pro-Hitler, Holocaust denial, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi accounts. X Corp advertisements have also appeared next to unhinged conspiracy theories that Jewish people were responsible for 9/11. [Media Matters for America is a nonprofit liberal organization and media watchdog group.]

The number of antisemitic incidents in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League, increased by more than 35% in 2022, from 2,721 in 2021 to 3,697. Antisemitic hate crimes rose in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, homes to the country’s three largest Jewish populations.

What to do about antisemitism:

We need to combat religious antisemitism by clearing-up problematic and incorrect biblical interpretations. 

  • For far too long too many Christians have promoted a false understanding of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) as a God of wrath, stressing that the “correct” understanding of God in the New Testament is the Christian God of love.
  • Our biblical translations and religious language need, as well, a corrective and thorough updating. This is particularly important when we realize how New Testament mistranslations have supported antisemitism. In most New Testament translations there is still a major translation problem. The historical Jesus, “Yeshua” as he was known, belonged to the Hebrew religious tradition. He was a Galilean from Nazareth. His home territory, Galilee, was part of the province of Judaea. 
  • There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. The word “Jew” came into existence centuries after Jesus. The inscription on Jesus’ cross, often abbreviated as “INRI,” stood for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. It meant “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.” NOT “King of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate, responsible for the jeering inscription, was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea.
  • The Gospel of Matthew has been interpreted, in many Christian traditions, in an antisemitic way because the Greek and Latin words ioudaios and iudaeus have not been translated as “Judean” but incorrectly as “Jew.” The Gospel of Matthew has often been regarded as a great contributor to the development of antisemitism, particularly because of the charge of Matthew 27:25. This so-called “blood guilt” text has been interpreted to mean that the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time and afterwards the “Jewish” people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus. 
  • I clearly remember the Roman Catholic Good Friday prayer, as it existed before 1959: “Let us pray also for the faithless Jews, that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.” [A note regarding the spelling of Iesus and Iudaeorum, the letter “J” did not exist until the sixteenth century.]

Recent popes and the Second Vatican Council held October 11, 1962 – December 8, 1965) have endeavored to improve Jewish-Christian relations. In 1964, Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978) became the first pope to visit Israel, and in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Latin document “Nostra Aetate,” (“In Our Times”) which denounced antisemitism and said Jewish people could not collectively be blamed for the death of Jesus. The promulgation, on October 28, 1965, of Nostra Aetate may be the most important moment is post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian relations. Memorable lines are these: “Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage, this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be achieved, especially, by way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions. Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.”

We need to combat religious antisemitism by denouncing faulty history and improving historical education. 

There is, for example, considerable falsehood being taught about the Holocaust.

One of the newer forms of antisemitism is the denial of the Holocaust by revisionist historians and neo-Nazis. Austin App (1902-1984) professor of medieval English literature who taught at the University of Scranton and La Salle University is considered the first major U.S. American Holocaust denier. App wrote extensively in newspapers and periodicals, and he also wrote a couple of books which detailed his defense of Nazi Germany and Holocaust denial. App’s work inspired the Institute for Historical Review, a California center which was founded in 1978 with the sole purpose of denying the Holocaust. 

On September 16, 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany announced the release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey. In the survey, one in ten young U.S. Americans believed that the Holocaust never happened, while 23 per cent thought it’s a myth or that the number of those killed has been exaggerated. Nationally, 63 % of the survey respondents did not know that six million Jews were murdered, and 36 % thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents could not name a single one.

Unlike many other bigotries, antisemitism is not merely a social prejudice. It is a dangerous conspiracy theory about how the world operates. 

People who embrace conspiracy theories to explain their problems lose the ability to rationally solve them. And so, Jews, who make up just 0.2 % of the world’s population, become the scapegoats with people believing that “the Jews” run the banks, that “the Jews” dominate business, and that “the Jews” dominate politics and are threat to the world security.

Scapegoats of course get used and abused. As early as August 1920, Adolf Hitler blamed “the Jews” for everything that was wrong with the world. Germany was weak and in decline due to the “’Jewish influence.” According to Hitler, “the Jews” were after world dominance. And they would not hesitate to use all possible means. In this way, Hitler took advantage of the existing prejudice that linked Jewish people to monetary power and financial gain.

Well, we can learn a lot from our understanding of contemporary and historic realities…


Community Reflection and Growth: Synodality

Certainly, one of the most important – and most positive – developments in the Catholic Church since the 1960s is the synodality movement. Very frankly, if synodality does not work, I suspect the current Catholic exodus will accelerate. 

The Catholic synodality movement is a series of high-level conferences of bishops, lay, and religious people to discuss a broad range of contemporary theological and organizational questions concerning the Catholic Church. Catholics in many countries have already had a series of national synodal gatherings. 

The next big Synod will be held at the Vatican on 4 to 9 October 2023. There there will be an even mix of participants from six different continents. In total, 363 people will be able to vote in the October Synod, according to the Holy See Press Office. Among them, 54 of the voting delegates are women. But only 54. In addition to the voting members, 75 other participants have been invited to the synod assembly to act as facilitators, experts, or assistants. Curiously, as historical theologian Massimo Faggioli (born 1970) observed in La Croix International (13 July 2023), “Representatives of academic Catholic theology from the United States and Germany are almost completely absent. Comparatively speaking, theologians from the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia are more present.” Why? Yes, that is an important question. 

The final Synod at the Vatican will be in October 2024. A final synodal advisory document will be voted on by synod assembly participants in 2024 and then presented to Pope Francis. The pope can decide, if he wishes, to adopt the text as a papal document or to write his own at the conclusion of the synod.

The contemporary synodal movement, with its theme of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission”, will go down as an historic event – positive or negative — in the life of Pope Francis who is close to eighty-seven years old and has now been pope for ten years. Just before the October Synod, Francis, on 30 September, will appoint 21 new cardinals, bringing the total number of cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave to 137. 

Right now, opposition to the October Vatican Synod is growing within far-right Catholic groups. Last month, the Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, or TFP, and its sister organizations released The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box, a book by two political activists, Chilean José Antonio Ureta and Peruvian Julio Loredo de Izcue. In the United States retired Cardinal Raymond Burke (born 1948) has praised the Ureta and Loredo de Izcue book. He stressed, as reported in the National Catholic Register (23 August 2023), that Catholics have always professed the church to be “one, holy, and apostolic.” But now, Burke observed it is “to be defined by synodality, a term which has no history in the doctrine of the church and for which there is no reasonable definition.”

Describing the German Catholic Church’s “Synodal Path” as a process that sowed confusion, “error” and division, Cardinal Burke said that with the upcoming synod assembly at the Vatican, “it is rightly to be feared that the same confusion and error and division will be visited upon the universal church. In fact, it has already begun to happen through the preparation of the synod at the local level.” Cardinal Burke was once the head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (Latin: Supremum Tribunal Signaturae Apostolicae) – from 2008 to 2014 — the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.

Both U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke and U.S. Archbishop Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco (born 1956) and well known for his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage have strongly criticized the German Synodal Way.

The German Synodal Way, I suggest, was actually very clear about the direction the Catholic Church should take. Called Der Synodale Weg, it was a series of conferences that began on 1 December 2019, and finished on 11 March 2023. It brought together 230 members, made up of bishops as well as an equal number of lay members from the Central Committee of German Catholics.

The majority of the assembly endorsed that:

  • Women’s ordination should be allowed by the Vatican.
  • The laity should have more influence on the election of bishops.
  • Homosexual partnerships/unions should get a public blessing ceremony.
  • The Roman Catholic catechism’s teachings on sexual ethics should be reformed.
  • Homosexual sexual acts within same-sex unions/partnerships should be theologically accepted and not classified as sinful behavior.
  • Married priests should be allowed.
  • There should be changes to the labor laws of the German church to prohibit the firing or refusal to hire people based on marital status.

On 10 March 2023, Bishop Georg Bätzing (born 1961) who is chairman of the German Bishop’s conference, expressed satisfaction at the end of the synodal assembly. As reported on the Pillar Catholic website, he said: “The synodal way is a concretization of what Pope Francis means by synodality. Above all, it is an expression of a lively, colorful, and diverse Church.”

Pope Francis was actually a bit more critical. As reported in Crux on 26 January 2023, during an interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis warned that the German Synodal Way is both “elitist” and “ideological.” He also said that it is neither helpful nor serious, and contrasted it with the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality. He urged that Catholic Church members to be patient, to dialogue and to accompany these people “on the real synodal path” and to “help this more elitist [German] path so that it does not end badly in some way, but so is also integrated into the Church.”

The 4 to 9 October 2023 Vatican Synod, like its predecessors, it will be held behind closed doors with carefully tailored information fed to reporters concerning what’s happening. Russell Shaw, veteran journalist, writing in the National Catholic Register (12 September 2023) asked a key question about the Vatican Synod starting next month: “If the synodal Church that Pope Francis wants is to be the open, transparent affair he speaks of, is a closed-door synod, with tight controls on the information flow, the best way of launching it?” 

And so, we remain observant and alert. This synodal story is hardly over. The Catholic Church may not be a democracy, but for too long the organizational structure of the Church emulated the structure and style of Constantine’s fourth century Roman Empire. Early Christian communities, however, were not that way. They belonged to communities of equals. Their leadership was anchored in solidarity with the community not above the community but part of it, walking and discerning together.


Contemporary Catholicism and Fundamentalism

This week I return with some contemporary reflections about fundamentalism. People have asked me if U.S. Catholics have now become fundamentalists. Hardly. But some of course. Many U.S. Catholic bishops, however, shaped and influenced by the theology of Popes John Paul II (pope from 1978 to 2005) and Benedict XVI (pope from 2005 to 2013) show signs of ardent fundamentalism. Their fundamentalist responses are a reaction to their fears about social change, which they cannot understand, and the continuing decline of the Catholic Church in the United States over which they are losing control. Catholics now make up about 20% of the U.S. population – down from close to 24% in 1965.

Ever since the Catholic, Joseph Biden, entered the White House in 2021, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been wrangling and wringing its hands about his position on legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and gender issues. Much to the added consternation of many U.S. bishops, according to the Pew Research Center, 63% of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. A June 2022 report by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, raised that to 64% of U.S. Catholics, 40% of them Republicans. This is almost identical to the 65% of all adult Americans who hold that view. 

The poll also found that 77% of U.S. Catholics said Communion should not be denied to someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That should not be surprising, as more than two-thirds of U.S. Catholics now support same-sex marriage, in opposition to church teaching. Gallup, curiously, has found that, over the past 20 years support for same-sex marriage has consistently been stronger among Catholics than among the American population as a whole. And more than 90% of U.S. Catholics now back Transgender Rights

In terms of U.S. Catholic decline, the data are not positive: 

  • More than two dozen U.S. dioceses have now entered into bankruptcy proceedings, the vast majority in the past decade. Of those dioceses, 12 are in the midst of the proceedings as of July 2023, while 17 have completed the process. 
  • Ongoing revelations of clerical sexual abuse and lost credibility in episcopal leadership have led many Catholics to simply walk out the door. Many who temporarily left due to Covid have now made their exodus permanent.

And the exodus has clearly not stopped.

  • Researchers at Georgetown University have found the number of Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by more than half over the last five decades.
  • Seminarian enrollment in the United States has been on a decades-long decline as fewer young men seek out the priesthood and the number of active priests in the U.S. continues to dwindle. Those who do become priests today tend to be right of center or far right of center.
  • As of 2022, 43% of Latino adults identify as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010. 
  • In 2021, the Archbishop of Cincinnati announced that 70% of Catholic churches would be closing there in the next several years. In May 2023, the Archbishop of St. Louis announced the closing of 35 parishes. Already in November 2015 the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would consolidate 368 parishes into 294, reflecting a national trend of parish closures in the United States caused by low attendance, a shortage of priests and financial troubles.
  • Nationally, Catholic school enrollment has declined by more than 430,000 students since 2008.

The word “fundamentalist” was first used in print in the United States, in 1920, by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman Examiner, a national Baptist newspaper. But the term “fundamentalism” was extended to other religious traditions around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.

In general, all fundamentalist movements arise when people are confronted with an unsettling disruption of their “normal” way of life. Sensing societal chaos, they develop strong feelings of anxiety and fear about losing control over their lives and losing personal and group identity. Fundamentalists are uncomfortable with and reject the realities of changing anthropological, sociological, and theological understandings.

Regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong, all fundamentalists follow certain patterns: (1) Religious ideology is the basis for their personal and communal identity. (2) They insist upon one statement of truth that is inerrant, revealed, unchangeable, and to be adhered to without question. (3) They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. (4) They seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. (5) They demonize their opposition. (6) They are selective in what parts of the religious tradition and heritage they will stress. 

Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they end up sacrificing values basic to all the great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring.

When Christian belief becomes highly fundamentalized, churches start to become repositories not of grace but of grievances. They become places where something like tribal identity is reinforced, fears are nurtured, and aggression and nastiness become part of a holy cause. In their overwhelming seriousness about “their” religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social processes to ensure that society conforms to the values and behaviors required by their fundamentalist worldview. Fundamentalists become their own justification.

What does one do about fundamentalism?

  • The best way to confront the narrow vision of fundamentalism is through broad-based education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills.
  • We need to establish channels for dialogue and support those institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.
  • We need to courageously work against ignorance and speak-out about dishonest or faulty information, especially on the Internet. And speak-out about those who advocate and publish it.


Truth is always complicated by the human envelope in which it is enclosed. It’s not only an intellectual problem, but one at the heart of the gospel itself. It was not sinners who turned Jesus off. It was the righteous religious types who felt they had all the answers.”    Rev. Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Catholic biblical scholar


Contemporary Transgender Issues

Last week, I told a friend I wanted to write about transgender issues, because it has become such a conflictual contemporary issue, especially in my own Roman Catholic Christian tradition. He immediately replied that it would be a waste of my time because, as he said: “That transgender nonsense is unnatural and immoral.”

Contemporary transgender issues do indeed raise questions about what is “natural” and “moral.” Determining contemporary moral values and behavior, I suggest, requires an historically conscious perspective, because human understanding evolves and develops over time. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science and archaic medical treatments like using leeches and bloodletting. Leech therapy was once recommended for diseases of the nervous system and eyes. Former U.S. president George Washington died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, when doctors drained out 40% of his blood trying to cure his throat infection.

When people derive moral obligations from “nature,” they are actually deriving them from a very human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law,” “human nature,” and issues of human sexuality and transgender is that our understandings of what it means to be “natural” have changed, developed, continue to develop. Women, for example, were once considered “naturally” inferior to men. We are always learning. And there will always be new questions.

Changed understandings do not always come easily. Across the United States, today far-right anti-LGBTQ+ extremists have targeted transgender people and are pushing legislation to remove their rights. So far this year more than 550 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been introduced in U.S. states. More than 80 have now become law.

In January of this year, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon U.S.A.  issued an archdiocesan policy titled “A Catholic Response to Gender Identity Theory.” Like policies in other U.S. dioceses, the Portland Archdiocese mandates that all people be treated according to their sex as assigned at birth. It condemns any endorsement of gender identity theory or “any form of gender transition, whether social or medical.” The Portland policy describes gender affirming care as a “totalitarian program that only causes more suffering and lasting damage.”

At least 30 U.S. Catholic dioceses have now released policies about LGBTQ+ people in schools, with the Archdiocese of Portland being one of the latest. These policies reinforce a strict gender binary understanding, such as requiring the use of names and pronouns according to a person’s sex assigned at birth, rather than the person’s gender. Many Catholic leaders follow the old dictum, often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, “hate the sin, love the sinner” in their approaches to LGBTQ+ people. They encourage kindness toward LGBTQ+ people but still condemn their actions as immoral and intrinsically disordered.

In March 2023, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued guidelines to stop Catholic hospitals from providing gender transition care. The 14-page document, titled “Moral Limits to the Technological Manipulation of the Human Body,” sets guidelines about changing a person’s gender, specifically with youth. The document says Catholic hospitals “must not perform interventions, whether surgical or chemical, that aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex or take part in the development of such procedures.” Currently, the Catholic Health Association comprises more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in the United States. (It will be very interesting to see which candidate the U.S. bishops support in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign. But that is a point for a future reflection.)

Nevertheless, this past August 2023 two Catholic colleges in Minnesota courageously announced that due to the “evolving understanding of gender and gender identity” they are welcoming transgender students. The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, say on their joint website that they support people who do not identify as binary, including “transgender, nonbinary, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming individuals.” The website announcement affirms that all LGBTQ+ people have a place in their academic institutions.

There are no doubts that transgender people have gained greater visibility in recent years. I can think immediately of celebrities like actress Laverne Cox, the former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, and the Canadian actor Elliot Page. They have all spoken very openly about their gender transitions. A very interesting book, in this regard is Transgender History by Susan Stryker. It provides a concise history of transgender people in the United States from the middle of the 19th century to the 2000s. Stryker is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona.

On March 31, 2023, the White House issued a proclamation recognizing Transgender Day of Visibility. President Joseph Biden stressed: “On Transgender Day of Visibility, we celebrate the strength, joy, and absolute courage of some of the bravest people I know. Transgender Americans deserve to be safe and supported in every community – but today, across our country, MAGA extremists are advancing hundreds of hateful and extreme state laws that target transgender kids and their families. No one should have to be brave just to be themselves.”

Transgender is an umbrella term describing people whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to what is typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender refers to the social roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women. Gender influences the ways that people act, interact, and feel about themselves. While aspects of biological sex are similar across different cultures, aspects of gender are often quite different.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 5% of young adults in the United States say their gender is different from their sex assigned at birth. About a quarter of U.S. adults say they have a trans friend (27%), while 13% say they have a co-worker who is trans and 10% say they have a transgender family member.

Many transgender people do not experience their gender as distressing or disabling. It is extremely difficult, however, for teenagers. More than 50% of trans and non-binary youth in the United States considered suicide last year. For these individuals, significant problems are finding the social support necessary to freely express their gender identity and getting hormone therapy and sex-change medical procedures.

Transgender people are more common than one might think. According to a 2022 report from UCLA’s School of Law Williams Institute, 1.6 million people ages 13 years and up identify as transgender in the United States. This means that approximately 1.4% of the U.S. population is transgender.

The term “transgender” was coined in the 1960s but didn’t become widespread until the 1990s. Historically, transgender people have been documented in many indigenous, Western, and Eastern cultures as well as societies from antiquity up to and including the present day.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, best known as Elagabalus, who ruled from 218 to 222 CE, reportedly wore makeup and wigs, preferred to be called a lady and not a lord, and reportedly offered vast sums to any physician who could provide him with a vagina. Shunned and stigmatized by the Praetorian Guard, Elagabalus was assassinated, and his body was thrown into the Tiber River.

Nevertheless, transgender behavior existed in Rome before and after Elagabalus. Transgender practice was tolerated and even respected by the Roman populace when it was practiced by the male-born women priestesses of Cybele, known as the Gallae. 

In the Indian subcontinent hijra is the generic term for trans women and may include eunuchs and intersex people who live in communities. Going back to the thirteenth century, hijras are officially recognized as a third gender neither completely male nor female. Today in general hijras have been born male. Some hijras undergo an initiation rite into the hijra third gender community called nirvaan, which involves the removal of the male genitalia.

The United States Armed Forces have a long history of transgender service personnel. Albert Cashier served bravely in over 40 battles as a Union Army soldier in the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865). He was one of at least 250 transgender soldiers who, though assigned a female at birth, fought in the war as men. In more recent years, openly transgender people have served or sought to serve in the military. As of 2021, transgender individuals are expressly permitted to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces as their identified gender.

Transgender Christians in medieval hagiography? The book Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography by historians Alicia Spencer-hall (Queen Mary University of London) and Blake Gutt (University of Michigan) explains that from the fifth to the ninth century, a number of Christians considered “saintly men” across the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, though assigned female at birth, chose to live out their adult lives as men in monasteries.  

There is no single explanation for why some people are transgender. The diversity of transgender expression and experiences argues against any simple explanation. Many experts believe that early experiences as well as experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the discovery of transgender identities. Transgender people may be naturally straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as naturally non-transgender people can be. 

The historical Jesus did not directly discuss issues of sex and gender. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL people.


History, Facts, and Fabrications

I suspect most of us remember the quote by George Santayana (1863 – 1952) the Spanish-American philosopher and writer: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Thinking about Santayana’s observation, if someone asked me WHY history is important, I wound add: “Those who cannot UNDERSTAND the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

Understanding history is far more important than just knowing history. It is not enough, for example, to know about the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s but to understand how and why Nazism had so much popular support. 

And unfortunately, as with Nazism, popular fanaticism is often more important than truth. Presumed or fabricated historical facts can be misleading, deceptive, and destructive.

As an historian, who has been observing for more than a couple years, I have a few observations about history and reality:

Genuine history should be based on factual information. That can be problematic when one is not using factual information, but interpretations presumed to be historical. 

No one knows, for example, what the historical Jesus looked like. He most probably had the brown eyes, brown skin, and black hair common to first-century Hebrews from Galilee. Nevertheless, some of the best-known depictions of Jesus, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, have depicted Jesus as a white European male. And many popular images of Jesus have portrayed him with brown or blond hair, blue eyes, and often looking rather androgynous.

Another historical problem arises when historical interpretation is done from the perspective of just one gender. Problems arise when, for example, only male historians are looking at and interpreting historic events. 

Throughout most of its history, the institutional church has been highly patriarchal. Its anthropology defined the male as superior and the female as inferior and subordinate. For too long male historical theologians interpreted reality that way, stating incorrectly for example that only men presided at Eucharist in the early church, because only men were heads of households. 

Today, we know that the “only men” perspective is not true. In early Christianity women took leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches: Apphia in Philemon 2 and Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19, for example. This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16:15 and Nympha of Laodicea in Colossians 4:15.  As heads of households, these women were also presiders at Eucharist. 

Paul also mentions Junia as a woman apostle in Romans 16:7. Unfortunately, male theologians, starting in the fourth century and into the Middle Ages changed the woman “Junia” into the man “Junias” in their biblical commentaries. Misogyny has a long history.

Fortunately, modern feminist history and theology emerged in the 1960s, rooted primarily in Christian women’s experiences of living under the pressure of patriarchal ideology and structures. Today we have better and more accurate historical perspectives thanks to women theologians and women historians. Since 1969 at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), for example, a growing number of women have received their doctorates in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies; and the current dean is a woman. 

For a good perspective on women in early Christian history, I strongly recommend Christine Schenk’s book: Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity.

History becomes narrow and deceptive when certain books or authors are banned. We see that happening a lot today, especially in schools. In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year in the United States, almost 1,500 books were banned. 

Book bans continue to target books featuring LGBTQ+ themes or characters, characters of color, as well as books on race and racism. Book banning, of course, began centuries ago when, for example, certain books were put on the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) which started in 1560. The writings of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1616 and of Galileo Galilei in 1634 were not removed from the Index until 1822. The very final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. But the Index was not formally abolished until 1966 by Pope Paul VI. History of course is filled with abundant and frightening examples that banning and burning books has often led to banning and burning people.

Historical ignorance can also lead to faulty interpretations of historic events. Contrary to what one still hears, for example, Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper with his disciples. 

Jesus certainly did not ordain “male apostles” as the first bishops. Ordination did not exist in Jesus’ lifetime. Ordination began much later and not as a way to pass on “sacred power to consecrate the Eucharist” but as a form of quality control – a way to assure communities that their leaders were competent and trustworthy. 

The first complete description of the Christian ceremony of ordination appears at the beginning of the third century and is found in the Apostolic Tradition, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170 ‒ ca. 235 CE). By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons. 

History becomes deceptive as well when myths, legends, and folklore are reported as actual historic events. Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Scriptures belong to biblical mythology, along with Noah and his Ark. 

A few years ago, my sister – always somewhat fearful that I was becoming a heretic — emailed me a photo and an article about the discovery of an ancient chunk of wood in the Judean Hills. That old piece of wood, the article said, had been a piece of Noah’s Ark. My sister said: “Isn’t this wonderful!” Well, I replied that obviously someone had discovered an old chunk of wood, but that Noah and his famous boat were mythological, just like the old chopped-down cherry tree myth about young George Washington, or the myth about Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who shaped the landscape with his axe and Babe his blue ox.

Historical understandings can and do change. For example, did Jesus of Nazareth have brothers and sisters? 

Most contemporary scripture scholars would agree that the historical Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua) had brothers and sisters and that they were the sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. The brothers of Jesus (the adelphoi in Greek, meaning “from the same womb”) are named in the New Testament, in Mark and Matthew, as James, Joses (a form of Joseph), Simon, Jude, and unnamed sisters’ are mentioned in Mark and Matthew.

By the 3rd century, however, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary had become well established. That of course raised problems with what one reads in Mark and Matthew. Other explanations were found. The traditional Roman Catholic explanation for the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters became that they were really cousins or children of Joseph before he married Mary. 

Better historical information often requires changed institutional and personal understandings and behavior as well. Today we know, for instance, that profits from slavery helped fund some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. 

Reparations and acknowledgements are being made. Ongoing efforts and calls to address historical connections to slavery and enduring racism at American universities have been renewed, especially in the wake of demonstrations protesting the murder of the African American man George Floyd Jr. by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020.

U.S Catholics need to review their history as well. By the time the Jesuit priests of Maryland founded Georgetown College in 1789, the Jesuits were among the biggest slave owners in the colony. They had several tobacco plantations scattered across Maryland and used the income from their slaves’ labor to create Georgetown. Then in 1838 the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus sold 272 slaves. Proceeds from that sale were used to satisfy Georgetown’s debts. 

Following broad publicity regarding the 1838 transaction, the university moved in 2017 to rename two buildings that bore the names of Jesuits at Georgetown who had played significant roles in the 1838 sale of slaves. The two buildings were rededicated in the names of Isaac, the first slave listed in the 1838 sale document, and Anne Marie Becraft, who established a school in Georgetown for black girls.

The slave issue has touched me personally as well. For many years I have been doing historical genealogical research into my paternal family history. I discovered, when reviewing the wills and other documents of some of my ancestral grandparents in Virginia that they were slave owners. That was a humbling shock. Then, corresponding with a researcher in Virginia I made another discovery. She told me that she and I have the same distant grandfather and sent a photo of her and her family. They are very dark African Americans. I immediately emailed my favorite cousin in Virginia and asked him about this. He replied: “Yes, we don’t talk about this but some of our slave-owning grandfathers back then had black ‘girlfriends’.”

Not everything on the Internet is historical, truthful, and honest. I wonder what will happen to the online information environment in the coming decade.

 Certainly, as we see for example in the dishonest political rhetoric of DJT and his supporters, the Internet today makes the production and dissemination of untruths much easier and faster. We used to say: “Pictures don’t lie” but on Internet photoshopped images are not truthful and make people believe their falsehood is reality. An example: President Joseph Biden made a surprise trip to Ukraine on February 20th this year. He was photographed walking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outside of a monastery in Kyiv. Multiple news outlets have published the picture. But an altered version of the photo is spreading on social media, showing Biden and Zelenskyy holding hands, their fingers entwined.

As we move into the next U.S. presidential campaign, I fear we will see a lot of Internet dishonesty.

Concluding observations: History is not about imaginative conjectures but about reality. We grow – or we can grow — in our discoveries about reality. And we can always be learners.

A good friend reminded me recently: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”  


Facts & Fantasy: a Bit of Papal History

On December 17, 2023, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today’s Pope Francis, will be 87  years old. He has now been Bishop of Rome for ten years. On September 30th he will appoint 21 new cardinals, bringing the total number of cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave to 137. I suspect the most historic event in this papacy, however, will be the push toward synodality. Francis has called for a synod to be held in Rome, starting in October 2023 with another session in October 2024. The theme is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” Thinking about these events and the Pope’s recent World Youth Day trip to Portugal, my reflections went back to papal history. 

The first pope I remember was Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, who declared the Catholic dogma of the Assumption in 1950. Pius XII’s photo appears in this week’s post. I suspect, however, that many people have never heard of Mother Pascalina Lehnert. As a young nun, she worked with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the papal nuncio in Bavaria, and then spent many years in Rome as his trusted advisor and assistant when he became Pope Pius XII.

When we look at the history of the papacy, the are facts, for sure. There are also a lot of pious fantasies especially about the beginning of the papacy. One of my old acquaintances, who is now a U.S. cardinal, still loves to remind people “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.” With all due respect, that is a fifth century imaginatve-fabrication. It is not history. 

In reality we have no detailed historical accounts about Peter’s life. We do know that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome because there were Christian communities in the city before either of the two apostles arrived there. Nor can one assume that Peter established a succession of bishops in Rome. There are clear historical indications in fact that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of Peter and Paul. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome. Leadership was not exercised by a central administrator bishop but by a group of elders. At some point Peter might have been a member of that group of elders. That hypothesis is held by some. In fact, wherever we look historically, the once so solid outlines of the “Petrine succession” at Rome seem to dissolve, somewhat like dreams after one wakes up. We are waking up today.

Few verses in Scripture have generated as much historical controversy and divisiveness as Matthew 16:18. That biblical discussion is still ongoing but Peter was not the “rock on which the church was built.” Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1988) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity: “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

Jerusalem was the first center of Christian life. The first Christian community there was led not by Peter but by James, one of Jesus’ brothers. By the time Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, however, there were already Christian communities in Antioch, Corinth, and Ephesus, as well as Rome.

Peter did play a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James, the brother of Jesus, was in charge and it was James who issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Peter (“Cephas” in Aramaic) went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebrew Christians. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.” (Paul writing in Galatians 2:11)

There is a later tradition that Peter and Paul were put to death in Rome at the hands of Nero, who died in 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events and legends are rarely historical. 

By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from later suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) an influential early bishop in the south of France. 

In the third and fourth centuries CE, the term pope – coming from the Latin word papameaning “father” — was used for bishops in general and then later used more for special bishops. So we see in the historic literature references, for example, to the “Papa of Constantinople,” and the “Papa of Rome.” The presumption back then was that all the “papas” should work together. The “papa” in Rome had an honorary position but was not the supreme decision-maker. The “papa” in Rome was “first among equals.” Each “papa” took care of the church in his region. This all changed when the Roman Empire began to collapse.

When the Western Roman Empire began to fall apart after the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395 CE, the bishops of Rome began to assume more and more control over civil and ecclesiastical life. The bishop of Rome Papa Leo I (who died in 461), was the bishop of Rome well known for convincing Attila, the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453 CE, to not invade Italy. Leo was a Roman

aristocrat, very proud of himself and fond of stories and legends about the Apostle Peter. He solemnly proclaimed in 446: “Peter speaks to the whole church through the Bishop of Rome.” And that was the beginning of the “Petrine papacy.”

The bishops of Rome – the papas — took over the ritual, the dress, the pageantry, and the power structures of the Roman emperor. In many ways, ancient Rome was resuscitated; and it was baptized and confirmed in papal Rome. Not even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures could have reproduced Imperial Rome and its emperor with the precision and detail adopted and enacted by the bishops of Rome.

Since the fifth century there has been a long parade of episcopal papas in Rome. Some were kind and benevolent. Others were ruthless and immoral depots. They all, however, rather enjoyed having papal power.

Periodically over the centuries, various powerful bishops of Rome reaffirmed and strengthened their authoritarian power, turning the pope (for a while) into the number one monarch on our planet. Pope Pius IX of course tried to recapture that supreme earthy authority, when, after losing the “Papal States” in 1870 he had himself proclaimed infallible. He craved power.

And the papal story goes on and on.

After sharing my pre-publication text with a good friend, he asked: “But now what about the belief that Peter was the First Pope?” I replied: “Only with a great deal of imagination can one say Peter was the First Pope. But some Catholics past and present are known for their creative imaginations.” And no. I am really not anti-Catholic.

How refreshing it would be if the next pope would confine to a museum or simply sell all the old Roman papal imperial dress and ritual regalia. The bishops of Rome should adopt a more contemporary way of dressing and walking on this earth. (Other bishops as well.) Most importantly they should not be authoritarian monarchs. They should implement an honest and transparent shared-decision-making and shared-leadership ministry. That indeed would emulate Jesus Christ rather than archaic Roman emperors.


PS – For an excellent history of the popes, see Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy. The latest edition covers the unprecedented resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of the first Argentinian pope.

Religiously Unaffiliated

Last week I offered some reflections about inter-religion dialogue. This week’s focus is on the “nones” the non religiously affiliated. According to a Pew Research Center study, about 30% of U.S. American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Like Michael, my university student whom I mentioned last week, they are disenchanted and disengaged from institutional religion.

In a recent email, Michael told me that he and his fiancee are now “searching non-believers,” but that they are both greatly attracted to the historical Jesus. I believe they and many others like them today are truly asking the bigger questions about life and meaning. In their own way, they are searching for an authentic “spirituality,” even though they might not use or even like that word. I think they would have resonated with the young men and women who were followers of the historic Jesus. In Jesus those people back then, around 29 CE, found someone who respected them, listened to them, and searched and explored with them. 

As an older historian, I have often wondered about those young men and women. They became Jesus’ disciples and later apostles. Were they perhaps disenchanted young Hebrews who felt institutionalized religion had lost its credibility? A hypothetical question of course. Jesus was a Hebrew believer but also highly critical of organized religion in his day. As a young adult, the historic Jesus, known as “Yeshua,” was a member of the religious group led by John the Baptizer, the Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River, which flows into and out of the Sea of Galilee. Some scholars suggest that John may have belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. In any event we do know, from several New Testament accounts, that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously belonged to the group around John. On his own spiritual journey, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus heard the Divine voice: “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

There are many ways to describe the Divine Presence at the depth of Reality, just as there are many ways to describe what it means to love someone and to be loved. Here symbol and metaphor become important. Some of the old images of God may no longer speak to contemporary people. There is no God up there above the clouds sitting on HIS throne, manipulating everything down below. And there is no angry self-centered God who demanded the terribly painful death of his Son on a Roman cross. But the authentic God is a loving God who has not abandoned us, even when we might not realize it.

The German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) argued that there is one common factor to all religious experience. In his book The Idea of the Holy he identified this factor as “the numinous.” The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a “holy other.”

The religious questioner’s journey is not a dead end. As one of my former Leuven Professors, Jan Lambrecht SJ (1926 – 2023), so often stressed, the biblical account (Luke 24:13-35) of the journey of the couple, Cleopas and Mary, disciples of Jesus on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus is really about being a religious questioner. Having witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, they moved from great sadness and despair about Jesus’ death to the joyful realization that he was not dead but truly alive and present with them. This narrative, Lambrecht stressed, is a model for everyone’s journey to discover a deeper faith experience. It also serves as an instrument to help others make their own religious-exploration journey. As I told my student Michael at the start of our ongoing conversations: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize.” Or as a very good spiritual advisor friend reminded me recently: “God is in our life as it really is, every part of it. We don’t so much ‘find’ God as ‘recognize’ God having been there with us all the time.”

We need to listen, to reflect, and to journey with the questioners and searchers. We need to listen to our own questions. We need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Asking questions is important. 

Having a glass of scotch with him one evening, I remember a long discussion with  a U.S. archbishop who was on sabbatical at our university. We talked about young  people today and about contemporary gender and sexuality issues. The archbishop, was open and friendly. He asked me: “Do you think we will ever ordain gay men?” I chuckled and replied: “Well archbishop I suspect we have been doing it for about two thousand years.” He took a big drink and stared at me. I took a drink, smiled, and continued. “Archbishop,” I said “now I have a question for you. Thinking about young people today and their religious questioning, when did you last feel the presence of the Divine?” Acting very surprised he looked away for a a few seconds. Then, with a bit of emotion, he said: “When I was a very young priest.” I asked: “And now?” He stared at me, took another drink, and replied: “These days I am on automatic pilot. I say the words and I do the things bishops are expected to say and do.” 

As our conversation continued, the archbishop said he really wasn’t all that certain anymore about a personal God. I told him I wanted to continue the conversation and reminded him of the comment from Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in his book Markings. Hammarskjöld left behind the manuscript of this book to be published after his death: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but 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.” The archbishop and I stayed in close and supportive contact for many years, right up to his death.

Yes. We need to ask questions and we need to invite and welcome the questioners and the seekers. There are probably more people than we realize who struggle with doubt and belief questions as they try to make meaning of their daily lives. We can participate and journey with them. We need to listen to young people at the start of their adult lives. (Right now, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the United States.) And we need to listen to and journey with older people, like my archbishop friend, as they confront their own questioning and life transitions.

I want to repeat a thought I have expressed a number of times: Our communities of faith – like our schools, study groups, and our parishes — should be centers of excellence where people speak courageously about their awareness of the Divine Presence through personal shared faith stories, through drama, through music, and through art. 

Regardless of our place in the human journey, The Gospels remind us that God lives and walks with everyone: all races, all nationalities. God is not focused on gender or sexual orientation. Matthew 25 is very clear: “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Writing my reflection this week a lot of thoughts were going through my head: the archbishop, my student Michael, and George a good friend who died a few days ago in Detroit. I have been thinking a lot about George because he and I were once young questioners and searchers who supported each other. We were in college seminary together in Detroit. Later we were fellow-students at the Catholic University of Leuven, called “Louvain” back then. Like me he did not seek ordination. He got married as I did.  He became a “lay theologian” and a university professor in Michigan. Our journeys together were truly life-giving. Yes. I know. Life is changed not taken away. Sometimes, however, the change is hard to get used to.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. (John 14:6) 

And so my friends we continue on our journeys.


Inter-religious Dialogue: Some Theological Reflections

A friend commented after reading last week’s post on Islam: “Can one really be saved without becoming Christian?” I replied that I am certainly not anti-Christian but that God is bigger than Christianity. I also reminded him that the historical Jesus was a Hebrew not a Christian.

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about inter-religious understanding are: Jesus Symbol of God by Roger Haight SJ, and No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward World Religions by Paul Knitter.

Roger Haight SJ (b.1936), is currently a scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This year in June, the Catholic Theological Society of America honored him with the John Courtney Murray Award for Distinguished Theological Achievement. In December 2004, however, his now greatly respected book Jesus Symbol of God had brought a notification from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it contained serious doctrinal errors. Well, institutional change happens but sometimes very slowly.

Paul Knitter (b.1939) is currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary, where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture. He is also Emeritus Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he taught for 28 years before moving to Union. Knitter is well known for his work on religious pluralism, especially Buddhism and Christianity. He also came under criticism by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later Pope Benedict XVI, for his alleged “relativism.” 

In 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document Dominus Iesus, which pointed out the dangers of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” Well we do – or we can – grow and change. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:11. 

We can grow in our search for truth, realizing that understandings change over time. As believers we have moved far beyond the medieval mindset, as well as the mindset of the 1950s, which I knew so well and once lived. There will, of course, always be some people who want to resuscitate archaic perspectives, for a variety of reasons. But are they healthy?

When it comes to non-christian religions, my own thinking has moved beyond a couple more or less rigid theological viewpoints: “exclusivism” and “inclusivism.”

“Exclusivism” maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Today major Catholic and Protestant theologians find exclusivism problematic. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. There are no indications that God, as proclaimed by Jesus, was interested in saving just a distinct group of human beings. Jesus of course was a Hebrew believer.

While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the “inclusive” view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. “Inclusivism” maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but ONLY through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) popularized inclusivism with his “anonymous Christian” understanding. Rahner was a great theologian but I would suggest, however, that we have now moved beyond his inclusive perspective. 

Theologian Roger Haight (b.1936) and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus was not self-centered but other-focused and God-centered. The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions. 

Christians can indeed regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  As Roger Haight has stressed: “The normativity of Jesus does not exclude a positive appraisal of religious pluralism. Christians may regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they are also mediations of God’s salvation.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest that we have to work together in what Paul Knitter has called “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We move from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a basis for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. 

I would stress, however, an important addition to the discussion. Inter-religious dialogue is essential for our survival today, but what is also essential today – and what I rarely see — is serious and respectful dialogue with those who are not religious: the “Nones,” people without a religious affiliation. When asked on surveys to identify the religion to which they belong, the “Nones” check the box that says, “no religion,” or “nothing in particular,” or “none of the above.” 

Starting about thirty years ago, the percentage of Nones in the United States, for example, has risen dramatically from 5 percent, according to the University of Chicago’s well-regarded General Social Survey (GSS) in 1990, to something like 25 percent today. That’s roughly 60 million US Americans. But…God loves them as well. And what do we do? Last week I got an email from one of my former students, a very bright and kind young man. He wrote that he needed to talk with me and then added: “Once a Catholic, I am now a non believer.But if I could experience the presence of God, I would commit my whole life to God.” I wrote back to him: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize. And of course we will continue this discussion.” There are so many like him…looking today for answers. Looking for that taste of the Divine.

We are all learners about that ultimate inexpressible Mystery which encompasses our existence. We are all on this journey together. The problematic people are not necessarily Muslims and people from other religions. The problematic people – regardless whatever religion they belong to — are the arrogantly self-righteous and the willfully ignorant.


Muslims in the United States Today


Several readers have asked for my thoughts about Muslims in the United States. Certainly a topic worth exploring, especially today. Although some historians suggest that there were Muslims on Columbus’ ships, the first clearly documented arrival of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century with the arrival of slaves from Africa.

As of 2023, about 25% of the world’s population are Muslims and currently 3.45 million Muslims are living in the United States, representing approximately 1.1% of the total population. Especially noteworthy today, more than 100 US American Muslim appointees are currently working in President Joseph Biden’s administration. Not the case of course in the previous presidential administration.

More than 20 years since the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that US American Muslims still endure record discrimination and marginalization. Donald Trump’s vitriolic anti-Muslim presidential campaign rhetoric in 2016 was a preview to his strongly Islamophobic administration. The 45th president and his White House staff and advisors targeted Muslims in both speech and policy: the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric; the elevation of Islamophobic staff members to key White House positions; banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country; and a lack of response to the rise in US hate crimes targeting Muslims.

Islam is one of the three historic Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today Christianity is the world’s largest religion with about 31% of the world’s population. Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with 25%. Judaism is the smallest with only 0.2% of the world identifying as Jewish. Islam, however, is the world’s most rapidly growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.

The founder of Islam was the Arab religious, social, and political leader Muhammad (c.570 – 632). According to Islamic doctrine, he was a prophet divinely inspired to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.

An historic perspective is important. The Islamic Golden Age, from the eighth to the thirteenth century CE, was a period during which science, literature, geometry, astronomy, and other fields of knowledge flourished. During this Golden Age, some of the most significant advances in medieval scholarship were made by Muslim scholars. Muslim conquerors had come into possession of numerous Greek and Roman manuscripts. Muslim scholars carefully preserved them and translated them, especially philosophic and scientific works. Without the preservation and translation work of Muslim scholars during this period, much of ancient Greek knowledge would have been lost forever. Algebra, which comes from an Arabic word, was developed during the period. We owe our numerals to Arabic scholars. And a great many stars were discovered and astronomical theories developed by Muslim scholars during this Islamic Golden Age.

Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, many contemporary US Americans have negative views about Muslims and Islam. About 50% say they don’t personally know anyone who is Muslim and know “not much” or “nothing at all” about Islam. Yet they have strong anti-Muslim feelings. US Americans, however, who are not Muslim, but personally know someone who is Muslim, are more likely to have a positive view of Muslims and less likely to believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.

I am a Christian theologian and I have worked for decades, promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding, especially with men and women belonging to all three Abrahamic religions. A few years ago I was a key speaker at a gathering of about 70 imams in Brussels. The topic was freedom of expression. And it went very well. Reactions to a great many questions and responses were positive. And I also learned a lot. In fact I told my audience I was not there to teach but to listen. Wherever it is found, however, Islamophobia is hard to combat. Far too often, if a person calls for a factual and well-researched understanding of Islam, that person is often labeled “unChristian,” or “unpatriotic,” or simply “dangerous.”

After seeing and reading a lot of anti-Muslim political and religious rhetoric, one has to ask just what are the truths and misconceptions behind contemporary anti-Muslim beliefs?

I see four big misconceptions:

  • That Islam is a violent religion: Anti-Muslim groups frequently pull passages from the Quran as evidence that Islam promotes violence. Actually anyone who is looking can also find passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that justify intolerance, violence, genocide, and slavery. Yet both books — the Quran and the Hebrew Scriptures — include abundant passages advocating tolerance, peace, and love. We need to remember that every religion has extremist elements. Far right Christian nationalist violence is increasing in the United States. And of course right now Christians are bombing and killing other Christians in Ukraine.
  • That Islam is inherently sexist and anti-female: Actually the Quran and related teachings of Islam promote many views regarding gender that were quite progressive for the time in which the prophet Muhammad lived. Women can own property, for example, and keep their last names after marriage. Muhammad also strongly advocated the education of girls. “Searching for knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim male and Muslim female,” Muhammad said. We need to remember however that Muslims, like Christians, interpret and follow the teachings of their religion under a variety of cultural influences. In progressive cultures, Muslim women can rise to the tops of their professions as doctors, lawyers, and scholars. In conservative cultures, however, women may be prevented from participating fully in public life. In either case, this status may not be unique to Muslim women. Understanding cultural influences on all religions is very important, yesterday and today.
  • That Muslims and Jews hate each other: The alleged enmity between Muslims and Jews does not do justice to the rich and complex Muslim-Jewish history and to today’s reality of Muslim-Jewish relations. For many people, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has shaped their perspective on Muslim-Jewish relations. In the Iberian Peninsula — the former Islamic states in today’s Spain and Portugal – Jewish people were able to make great advances in science, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, during the Muslim Golden Age. See the book by Mark R. Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages. Today there are certainly positive Muslim-Jewish developments. Earlier this month, July 2023, members of the Latin American Jewish Congress and the Muslim World League met for two days in Buenos Aires. Over 40 participants discussed ways to collaborate and published a “decalogue” of agreements, which includes future interfaith programming in South American schools and invitations to members of each group to participate in holiday services of the other faith. Great progress is being made today in Muslim–Jewish interfaith dialogue groups in the United States, like, for example, the “Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society (JIDS) of Washington,” started in 2009. Monthly dialogue groups meet across the country bringing together Jews and Muslims for friendly, yet frank, encounters.
  • That Muslims want to establish Shariah law in the United States: Shariah law refers to the moral and legal framework about how Muslims should behave and relate to the world. It does influence legal codes in Muslim-majority countries, but it is more of a philosophical and religious precept, not a universally applicable set of laws. However, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, have combined state and religious power to create a theocracy. In the United States, however, US law always supersedes Shariah law. No US court has ever made a ruling based on Shariah and, according to the US Constitution, no court ever can.


For further reading I recommend two books: The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Hatred of Muslims, by Nathan Lean. And The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West by Todd H. Green.