Penance – Reconciliation

Apostolic Christianity

The earliest Christian penitential practices did not differ greatly from their Jewish predecessors. Around 57 CE Paul wrote that he was shocked that the community in Corinth had not expelled one of its members for marrying his stepmother, a practice that was expressly forbidden by the Torah. The Christian community was to be a holy community, free of wickedness, and Paul counseled them to cast out from their midst those who worshiped idols, who got drunk, and who fell into other immoral practices (1 Corinthians 5:1–13).

This practice of restricting someone from normal involvement with the community and later lifting the restriction was known in rabbinical writings as “binding and loosing.” The rabbis did it on the authority of Jewish law, but the early Christians saw themselves doing it on the authority of Christ.

Neither the Gospels nor other New Testament writings indicate any specific ritual connected with this discipline. The only ritual of forgiveness known to the earliest Christian community was baptism, and today biblical scholars view almost all the texts that speak of a call to repentance as a call to baptism and moral rectitude after baptism. Penance was seen as part of baptism. There was no separate sacrament as we have it today.

Clearly the early Christians understood that Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance (Mark 1:15), and to those who showed sorrow for their sinfulness he announced that they were forgiven by the power of God (Luke 5:18–26; 7:36–50). When asked how many times one person should forgive another Jesus said, in effect, “every time.”

Second Century

By the second century Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110) and other second-century bishops continued to speak of personal correction and praying for others as a means of combating sin. Polycarp of Smyrna (69 – 155) wrote that pastors should be compassionate and merciful to the sheep in Christ’s flock who went astray.

By the middle of the second century, however, there was a new development. There could only be one penance after baptism for the serious sins of apostasy, murder, and adultery.The public sinner would have to confess sins to the bishop. During liturgies, the public sinner had to sit behind the community and wear penitential clothing. The public sinner was not allowed to stay for Eucharist and had to leave after the Gospel.

Depending on the sin, some sinners had to pray and fast until their death. Church regulations were so strict that many people waited until they were dying for the opportunity to be forgiven. Others put off being baptized until close to death.

In some places this practice lasted into the fourth century. We know that Constantine the Great (c.272 – 337) legalized Christianity in 312 CE but he was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337. Constantine had put off baptism as long as he did so that he could be absolved from as much of his sin as possible.

Third Century

By the third century a general pattern for the public reconciliation of known sinners began to appear in many churches. Those who wanted to rejoin the community went to the bishop and confessed their error, but before they could be readmitted to the ranks of the faithful they had to reform their lives. They had to perform works of repentance, fasting and praying, and giving alms to the poor to show that their repentance was sincere. The period of their penitence could be a few weeks or a few years depending on the penitential customs of their community. In effect serious sinners were thrown out of the community: excommunicated. When their time of penance was over, the bishop imposed his hands on their heads as he had done after their baptism.

There were extremes in interpretation. The rigorists claimed that excommunication for sins like apostasy and adultery should be permanent. At the other extreme were the bishops who generously readmitted people who seemed to be sorry for what they had done.

Local bishops were relatively independent and could set their own policies. In some places penitents were required to stay away from public amusements. In others they were forbidden to hold public office or were barred from the clergy. In yet others they had to abstain from marital intercourse during the whole penitential period. And occasionally, for heinous offenses like bestiality, penances of twenty or thirty years were imposed. In reality, however, rules were strict and post-baptismal penance could only be done once in a lifetime.

It is particularly noteworthy that most bishops did not see their forgiveness as “causing” divine forgiveness. It was the other way around. Divine forgiveness always came to those who turned from sin and mended their ways, and the church simply declared that they were forgiven by God when it was sure that they had truly reformed their lives. Reconciliation with the church, then, was a sign that reconciliation with God had already taken place.

Fourth Century

Starting in the fourth century, with the Roman Empire becoming Christian, bishops became civil judges, and sin was seen as breaking the law rather than fracturing one’s relationship with God. Bishops were given the right to act as judges in civil suits and their decisions had legal force. And their decisions in matters of church discipline were increasingly regarded as spiritual laws. Clearly a more legalistic understanding of penance emerged. It was understood as a kind of payment to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Bishops were acting as God’s representatives.

This change was greatly facilitated by a narrow interpretation of passages like Matthew 18:18 by Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and Pope Leo the Great (c. 400 – 461). They ignored earlier verses indicating a process for Christians to follow when dealing with a believer who refuses to repent of sinful behavior. That process ends, as a last resort, with the person being removed from the community.

Most importantly, Augustine and Leo understood that it was the “disciple” and not God who did the forgiving, though only after true repentance. As a result, sin —which had earlier been thought of as a break in the relationship of love and trust between members of the community, and as a violation of the covenant relationship between the community and God — was increasingly conceived of in legal terms, as a breaking of a divine law or the violation of an ecclesiastical law.

Penance became a very public matter. But it was still normally received only once in a lifetime. The majority of Christians, however, felt no need for public penitence. They were not great saints but they were not great sinners either.

Late Fourth and Early Fifth Century

During this time we see a new development especially in Ireland. (And I am writing this on St. Patricks Day😀) The Celtic practice of penance became the seeking of private spiritual advice. Ecclesiastical canonical penance had little or no effect on the lives of ordinary Christians. Devout Christians, in some places already by the beginning of the fourth century, were encouraged to personally confess their shortcomings with a spiritual “guide” or “physician” who would give them direction in works of prayer and repentance. They did this to lead more holy lives. The person to whom they went, note well, was not necessarily a priest. Confession could be made to a layperson, usually a monk or a nun.

Sixth Century Penitential Books

Penitential books containing church rules concerning penance were also first developed by Celtic monks in Ireland in the sixth century. They gave lists of sins and the appropriate penances prescribed for them. They became a type of manual for confessors. The number of penitentials and their importance is often cited as evidence of the particular strictness of Celtic spirituality in the seventh century. As priests heard confessions, they began to compile handbooks that dealt with the most commonly confessed sins; and they wrote down set penances for those sins. The penitential book composed around 650 by an Irish monk named Cummean became an important handbook for confessors. For stealing, Cummean prescribed that a layman should do one year of penance; a priest, five; and a bishop, six.

Twelfth to Sixteenth Century

In the twelfth century, the rules changed. Only priests could listen to the confession of sins. The formula that the priest used after hearing a person’s confession changed as well. What had been “May God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins” was changed to “I absolve you from your sins.” Thomas Aquinas, with his limited knowledge of the early centuries of church life, mistakenly asserted that the changed formula was in fact an ancient formula.

It was also in the twelfth century that the understanding of purgatory developed. Medieval theologians said sins were forgiven but that, after death, sinners’ souls still needed to be cleansed before they could enter heaven. Purgatory was suggested and presumed to be a place of a cleansing or purgatorial fire, outside the gates of heaven, to enable the deceased to achieve the holiness necessary for them to enter the joy of heaven.

Indulgences were later introduced as a way to reduce the “days” of purgatorial punishment one had to undergo before entering heaven. One could get an indulgence for saying special prayers, visiting holy shrines, performing good deeds, and later by contributing money to the church.

The main funding for the early stages of building St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican, for example, came from the sale of indulgences. The German Dominican friar Johan Tetzel (c.1465 – 1519) gathered indulgence money for the St. Peter’s building project. Although it is now disputed, the old legend was that Tetzel had said: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

In the twelfth century the decision was also made that people could receive the sacrament of penance many times during one’s life. In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council, meeting at the Lateran Palace in Rome, initiated more changes.“Penance” became known as “confession;” and the council commanded that every Christian who has reached the age of reason had to confess all of his or her sins at least once a year to a priest.

(The Lateran Council also ordered that Jews were not to hold public office and that Jews should be distinguished from Christians in their dress. The Council mandated a special dress code for Jews to distinguish them from Christians so that no Christians would come to marry Jews ignorant of who they were. And so… What about penance and reconciliation for grossly antisemitic bishops?)

When Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521) excommunicated Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) from the Catholic Church in 1520, the bill of excommunication also condemned forty-one of his ideas, including six on indulgences and twelve on penance. Luther himself was somewhat ambivalent about the sacramentality of confession. If confession was a sacrament at all it was only a sacrament in the broad sense, a sacrament instituted by the church, through which Christians could experience the forgiveness of God.

In the mid-16th century the bishops at the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) stressed the private confession approach to the sacrament of penance. In fact Trent’s bishops were mistaken in assuming that private confession dated back to the days of the Apostles. And they understood that the historic Jesus had created the sacrament of penance. The Council of Trent’s medieval conception of sin and its remission through the confession of guilt and the performance of penitential works lasted into modern times because the Catholic Church retained its medieval cultural form, while the world around it changed.

Second Vatican Council

The Roman Catholic approach to penance began to change again after the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) when the name of the sacrament was changed from penance to to reconciliation, and when the rite allowed for a meeting of priest and penitent that was more like counseling than confession.

Thoughts About Reconciliation Today

How should Christian communities practice reconciliation today? People do need to acknowledge their sinful behavior and seek forgiveness. But forgiveness also requires reconciliation. I suggest that at the local parish level, Christian communities should devote resources and personnel to focus on conversion and reconciliation about racism, misogyny, and homophobic discrimination. They should also focus on reconciliation within families: between husbands and wives, between parents and teenagers, between brothers and sisters who are angry with each other, and perhaps even between extended family members.

Such a ministry of reconciliation would also require specially trained men and women as ministers of reconciliation. Then indeed the local Christian community would truly become a sacrament of reconciliation.

  • Jack

P.S. Next week we will look at the development of Eucharistic understanding.

Baptism and Confirmation

Sacrament

A sacrament, coming from the Latin word sacrare meaning “to consecrate,” is not so much something one receives but a symbolic ritual in which one participates. Each sacrament dramatizes and points to something that is happening in the lives of people who belong to the Christian community. They live in the spirit of Jesus because they have been graced and have become a cause of grace in others.They grow in their understanding of what Jesus meant when he said: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Grace is a quality of life not a spiritual thing that one gets and builds up like a spiritual investment portfolio.

Baptism

The word “baptism” is derived from Latin and Greek words meaning to immerse or to plunge, as in water. Historically people have participated in baptism by being dipped or immersed in water, having water poured on their heads, or even just splashing some water on the head of the person being baptized. 

John the Baptizer

John the Baptizer was an itinerant Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River. John used baptism as the central symbol of his pre-messianic movement. In the first chapter, the Fourth Gospel describes John the Baptizer as “a man sent from God” who “was not the light,” but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe.” Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus and that certainly some of Jesus’ disciples had been participants in John the Baptizer’s religious movement. John acknowledged that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would not baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).  Around 30 CE, John the Baptizer was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – died after 39 CE) who officially ruled Galilee.

The ritual performed by John the Baptizer is mentioned in each of the four Gospels. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire to refocus one’s life and make a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. The ritual is never described in detail, because it was commonly performed in a river or nearby pool and entailed full or partial immersion. 

Jesus’ Baptism

For Jesus, his baptism marked a moment of personal discernment and preparation for his own public ministry, which was far greater than the ministry of John the Baptizer. Mark, Matthew, and Luke depict the baptism in parallel passages. In all three Synoptic Gospels the Holy Spirit is depicted as descending upon Jesus immediately after his baptism accompanied by a voice from Heaven. Mark and Luke record the voice as addressing Jesus by saying “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In Matthew the voice states “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23; Matthew 3:13–17) After his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the Judean desert to fast and pray for forty days.

Baptism and the Jesus Movement

That a ritual immersion in water was important in the earliest decades of the Jesus movement is clear from the many references to it in the New Testament. When Paul speaks of being “immersed in one spirit” and “into one body,” he is talking about the ritual’s marking an entrance into the community and sharing a communal spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). But for Paul, the body into which they have been immersed is not just a group or social body. It is also the Body of Christ, for it is united and animated by the spirit of the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 12:12–27). Paul did not develop an elaborate theology of baptism. Borrowing from Hebrew ideas with which he was familiar, Paul saw it as a symbolic immersion and an initiation not only into the community of believers but into the very way of life that Jesus himself had lived. 

Adult Baptism

The understanding and practice of baptism developed greatly in the third century. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, baptism had become a several-weeks-long exercise involving prayer, instruction, and learning the creed: all leading up to the actual baptismal washing on Easter. The ceremony was usually conducted by the overseer, the bishop, of the Christian community. The word “overseer,” episcopus in Latin, comes from the Greek words epí meaning “over” and skopós meaning “watcher.” In English the word evolved into “bishop.” (The Latin episcopus, became the Old English biscop. Then Middle English bisshop and lastly bishop.)

Those to be baptized at Easter disrobed, were anointed with oil, renounced the devil, confessed their faith in the Trinity, and were then immersed in water. They were then anointed by the overseer (bishop) with special holy oil (chrism), received the laying on of hands by the bishop, and were dressed in white. They were then led to join the congregation for the Easter Eucharist celebration.

Infant Baptism and Augustine of Hippo

Although some infants were being baptized in the third and fourth centuries, infant baptism did not really become widespread until the fifth century, thanks to the introduction of his Original Sin understanding by Bishop Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE), also known as Saint Augustine, was a theologian and the bishop of Hippo Regius, the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria.

As a young man Augustine had an active hedonistic sexual lifestyle. He had at least one child born out of wedlock, via a concubine with whom he lived for more than fifteen years. He never married. It was in 386 at the age of 31, however, that he became strongly anti-sex Platonic and converted to Christianity. He and his son, Adeodatus (372–388 CE), which means “Gift from God,” were baptized in 387 by Bishop Aurelius Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397 CE).

Augustine’s creation: Original Sin 

For many traditionalist Christians, the doctrine of “Original Sin” is firm and definite. In fact, however, there are no biblical and no historical indications that Jesus knew of or believed this doctrine. Neither did the early church. Original Sin is a theological construct created by Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth century.

Augustine was the first theological author to use the phrase “original sin” (Latin: peccatum originale). Most contemporary biblical scholars consider Adam and Eve mythic figures in the Hebrew Bible’s creation myth. Augustine, however, considered Adam and Eve real historical people who were responsible for what he called the “Original Sin” by which all humans, through sexual intercourse, inherited a tainted nature. Augustine identified male semen as the means by which original sin was inherited and passed on. He stressed however that the historic Jesus of Nazareth was free of Original Sin because he was conceived without any semen. 

Augustine believed that sexual desire itself was a consequence of Original Sin. Most importantly for its impact on baptism, Augustine held that unbaptized infants went straight to hell as a consequence of Original Sin. He therefore became a strong advocate of infant baptism. In the church, thanks to Augustine, infant baptism would become the norm for baptisms.

Quite honestly, Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality and his introduction of the Original Sin doctrine were problematic theological aberrations.

Returning to Adult Baptism

Some post-Reformation Christian traditions strongly rejected infant baptism. The Anabaptists, started in 1527 by Michael Sattler, believe that baptism is valid only when candidates freely confess their faith in Christ and request to be baptized. (The word “Anabaptist” comes from the Greek word ana meaning “again” as in “baptized again.”) Anabaptist groups still present today are mainly the Amish, the Brethren, and the Mennonites. 

Other contemporary Christian traditions, of course, stress the importance of adult believer’s baptism. “Baptists” form a major branch of Evangelical Christianity distinguished by baptizing adult professing Christian believers and doing so by immersion. The earliest “Baptist” church was started in 1609 in Amsterdam with the English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In 1638, Roger Williams, who founded Providence Plantations, established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies.

Baptism as initiation into the community

In many ways I can resonate with the stress on adult baptism but doubt very much that infant baptism will disappear. Regardless, baptism is an initiation into the community of faith. The communIty of believers, therefore, has a major responsibility to support and promote the healthy Christian development of all of its members. Just as parents, family, and friends promote the physical, mental, and intellectual development of babies and children, so too parents, family, and Christian communities bear a heavy responsibility to promote and support the Christian faith and values development of their babies and children.

Confirmation

As a former catechetical teacher, parish religious education director, and professor of historical theology for many years, I have always considered confirmation a sacrament in search of its identity.

The Practice

In many Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed traditions, confirmation is a rite that often includes a profession of faith by an already baptized person. In the Catholic tradition, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “…reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” Confirmation is not practiced in Baptist, Anabaptist, and other Christian traditions that stress the importance of believer’s adult baptism. 

When it started

Confirmation as a separate sacramental ritual in western Christianity did not exist before the third century. And, it did not become a regular practice in Europe until after the fifth century. What was originally a bishop’s blessing administered after baptism, later became separated from the water ritual. 

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, there were, rather quickly, more baptisms than a single bishop in each city could handle. Presbyters (priests) were then allowed to do the baptizing but only the bishop was allowed to “confirm” the baptisms. Many people really did not see the necessity of this confirmation. For the most part it fell into disuse. 

Medieval practice

In the ninth century, however, reform-minded French bishops made an attempt to revive confirmation, suggesting that it bestowed the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, by the twelfth century, confirmation was mostly received by those who wanted to enter clerical orders. 

In 1563 the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent stressed the importance of the Sacrament of Confirmation because the bishops believed it was established by the historical Jesus and had the following effects on the confirmed person: (1) an increase of sanctifying grace which makes the recipient a “perfect Christian;” (2) a special sacramental grace consisting in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and (3) an indelible character by reason of which the sacrament cannot be received again by the same person. Trent and later RCC regulations made confirmation a requirement before entering into marriage or holy orders.

Contemporary meaning

Over the centuries confirmation has gone through a number of changes in understanding and ceremonies. Some bishops say it should be received very close to baptism. Others say close to one’s first communion. And yet others advocate it as an adolescent faith commitment ritual, like a Christian Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a coming of age ceremony for boys and girls when they reach the age of 12 or 13. As friend, Joe Martos, often said: “Theologians today are hard put to say which is the meaning of the sacrament…” 

Celebrating lived realities

Meaningful sacraments are not those that just celebrate beliefs but those that truly celebrate lived realities. If confirmation is truly a rite of passage, it needs to facilitate or at least to celebrate a genuine change in people’s lives. 

Before confirmation, children are told that they are going to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, even if they get nothing out of the ceremony. So how does confirmation today truly become and celebrate a genuine change in people’s lives?

A dynamic and meaningful confirmation should connect people, whatever their age, with an experienced spiritual reality: an experience of the Sacred in the depth of our human lives and in the natural world. Such an experience gives people what we so desperately need today: faith, hope, courage, optimism, truthfulness, patience, reliability, and trust. Perhaps we all need to spend more time studying and reflecting on Christian spirituality.

Next week, some reflections about penance and reconciliation.

  • Jack

Sacraments – Historical Thought Starters

I call this week’s post “historical thought starters.” I would like to help people think about how much the understanding and practice of sacraments has changed over the past two thousand years. Change is a fact of life…even in the church. Today therefore a few historical observations. All seven sacraments will be explored in more detail between now and Easter.

Sacraments of course are not just a Catholic concern. Sacraments are Christian realities. 

CATECHISM

The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 does state that the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ. This understanding was carved in stone by the sixteenth century Council of Trent. Historically speaking, however, there is no direct evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever created a well-defined and complete set of seven sacramental rituals such as appeared in the church many years after his death and resurrection

IN THE BEGINNING

The earliest canonical writings, the letters of Paul the Apostle (5 – 64 CE) mention some ritual practices of the first followers of Jesus. Most notably are the immersion of converts in water (baptism) and the sharing of a commemorative meal “The Lord’s Supper.” 

THE LORD’S SUPPER

The Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, during which Jesus instructs them to continue the practice in his memory, which was the model for the early Christian Lord’s Supper. An agape (“love feast”) was a  communal meal shared among early Christians. The Eucharist was usually part of the agape. At some point however, probably between the latter part of the 1st century and 250 CE, the two became separate.

In 1 Corinthians 11:34, for instance, Paul asks the richer people to eat their meals at home. By doing this, Paul eliminated the meal annoyances and occasional drunkenness problems which had become problematic in some Corinthian agape gatherings. Inequality and partisan discrimination were big problems in the quite diverse Corinthian community. Paul’s exhortation about love in I Corinthians 13 makes very understandable sense here.  

IMMERSION

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23) mention the ritual immersion practiced by John the Baptizer in which Jesus himself participated. Matthew 29:18–20 also portrays the risen Lord, in a post-Resurrection narrative, commanding his disciples to baptize using a Trinitarian formula.The words came probably not from the historic Jesus, biblical scholars suggest, but from early church practice around the year 80 CE. 

ACTS OF APOSTLES

The Acts of Apostles enlarges the scriptural picture of the early church with some references to the Lord’s Supper and a number of stories about baptisms. Acts also mentions another ritual action, the laying on of hands, which in this context usually results in charismatic activities such as speaking in tongues, and which is sometimes described as “receiving the Holy Spirit.” See for instance Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

LAYING ON OF HANDS

The laying on of hands was an action mentioned numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It involved placing one or both hands palms down on the top of another person’s head, usually while saying a prayer or blessing. It was a common practice used by parents blessing their children. Jacob in the book of Genesis, for instance, blesses his two grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Genesis 48:14). The laying on of hands was also used to bless someone for ministry. In Numbers, the people of Israel lay hands on the Levites to dedicate them to the Lord’s service (Numbers 8:9-10). Moses laid hands on Joshua as his successor in leadership (Numbers 27:18-23; Deuteronomy 34:9). 

JESUS AND LAYING ON OF HANDS

Jesus followed the laying on of hands tradition. His most common practice in healing was touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:22–25; Luke 13:13). Jesus also “lays his hands” on the little children who come to him, to bless them (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16). Only centuries later was the laying on of hands strictly understood as a uniquely Christian “ordination ritual.”

CONFIRMATION LATER

Confirmation emerged from baptism as a separate ritual in the fourth century, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

RECONCILIATION – “CONFESSION.”

In the New Testament there is no description of a ritual or ceremony associated with penance or reconciliation. Even a quick reading of the Gospels, however, shows that Jesus was greatly concerned with the forgiveness of sins and the reconciling of sinners. And Jesus clearly told his followers to forgive sinners. See Matthew 6:14-15, for example.

MEDIEVAL PRACTICE

Between the eighth and ninth centuries, altar placement and worship space arrangements in church buildings changed. The celebrant no longer faced the people but faced the apse, when celebrating Mass. This practice was first adopted in the basilicas of Rome and then became common practice across Europe. 

What was lost was the sense that the congregation was the Body of Christ. Mass became the celebrant’s ritual and not a community liturgy. The celebrant “said Mass.” The congregation watched everything from some distance, often praying in their own way with their own devotions. Where present, stained glass windows were a source of devotion.  If the congregation made too much noise and the celebrant found them disturbing, bells were rung to keep the people quiet.

Moving way beyond the early Christian understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a community celebration and sharing of and in the presence of Christ, the Eucharist, especially around the thirteenth century, began to be understood and ritualized in a very narrow way. It became not so much a sacrament to be received but a sacrament to be venerated and adored. 

If they received communion at all, most medieval people received communion just once a year. The purpose of the Mass became to consecrate and preserve the Eucharist wafer so that it could be venerated and adored. The celebrant, with his back to the congregation of course, raised the consecrated wafer, the Host, above his head so that it became visible to all in the congregation. Often holding it for a longer time. Some people only came to church when the Host was about to be elevated. So that people could come into the church, for the short time necessary to see the elevation of the Host, the ringing of an announcement bell from the church tower was introduced. 

Since some celebrants, now called “priests,” found it difficult, wearing heavy vestments to raise the Host for a long time, altar servers lifted the priest’s ornate chasuble and supported his elbows to help secure the maximum elevation. Medieval laity wanted to adore Christ at the elevation of the consecrated bread during Mass. Many people, in fact, left Mass immediately following the elevation and never thought about receiving communion.

Monstrances, ornate display cases, were created to display the consecrated Host outside of Mass. They were first created in response to the Feast of Corpus Christi (i.e. the Feast of the Body of Christ) established in 1263. The feast of Corpus Christi was proposed by Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274), Doctor of the Church, to Pope Urban IV (1195 to 1264) in order to create a feast focused solely on venerating the Holy Eucharist. Aquinas wrote special hymns for the occasion. The monstrances were placed on altars and enabled the faithful to see, venerate, and adore the consecrated Host. They were also carried in processions. 

Unfortunately, the medieval Eucharistic Body of Christ rituals ignored the biblical understanding of the Body of Christ as, first of all, the community of believers. Recall, for instance, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” And of course we have the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” And we have, for example, the wonderful words of Jesus in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

ANOINTING

Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread if not uniform practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, women religious, and ordained ministers. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick was primarily a lay practice.

MARRIAGE

I will explore this in more detail on March 31. The thought starter for today: The first official declaration that marriage is a sacrament was made in 1184 at the Council of Verona. However, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1563 that marriage was officially deemed one of the seven sacraments.

HOLY ORDERS

This is a complex history which I will explore on April 7. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. Ordination began 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 people of genuine and solid faith. Today historical theologians would say that we have no direct evidence of ordinations during the first three centuries of Christianity.

SEVEN

Before the thirteenth century, there was no talk of just seven sacraments, because Christians had a variety of rituals and symbols. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, Catholic discussion of sacraments was limited to the familiar seven. Prior to the thirteenth century, however, church practices and Christian beliefs were far from uniform and far from what they would later become. 

WOMEN

What is less well known in fact is that for centuries women had been ordained as deacons and abbesses, and even as presbyters and bishops. This was certainly the case until the 12th century. Gary Macy’s book is very helpful here: The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. What Macy, professor at Santa Clara University, points out is that references to the ordination of women exist in papal, episcopal, and theological documents of the time; and the rites for these ordinations have survived. 

Not everyone was comfortable with accounts of ordained medieval women. I suggest that when the institutional historians were male and theologians were male, it was easy and convenient for the men in leadership positions to declare findings like Gary Macy’s a “misinterpretation.” As Gary Macy once said: “This is a history that has been deliberately forgotten, intentionally marginalized, and, not infrequently, creatively explained away.”

REFORMATION

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and the other reformers rejected the ritual sacramentality of medieval Catholicism. Using the New Testament they acknowledged baptism and Eucharist, which are both explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, as genuine sacraments. But they regarded the other five as ecclesiastical inventions.

COUNTER-REFORMATION

In response to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent, meeting for twenty-five sessions between 13 December 1545 and 4 December 1563, initiated a Catholic Counter-Reformation. The greatest weight in the Council’s decrees was given to the seven sacraments, in some detail, refuting the claims of the Protestant Reformers. The bishops insisted on the numbering of the sacraments as seven and that all seven were instituted by Jesus Christ.

CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGE

It is important for us today to have a clearer sense of the evolution of sacramental rituals. But that is not enough. Sacramental actions today need to regain their dynamism. 

We need better understandings for sure. But changes in ritual structure and regulations are absolutely essential. Sacraments are not just appropriate rituals for various stages of life. As my friend Joseph Martos so often said and wrote, they are “doors to the Sacred.” Today those doors need to be opened wide. People today are hungry and searching for that taste of the Divine. It is truly there of course.

Next week, we look at Baptism and Confirmation.

  • Jack

Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jack

Truth Decay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does one do? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jack

Roman Catholic Turbulence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Jack

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

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

U.S. Christian Nationalism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well. Be healthy.

– Jack

My Ideal Church

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

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

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

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

  • Jack

Gabriel Moran and His Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmest regards to all.

  • Jack

A New Year and New Religious Trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every good wish for the New Year!

  • Jack