Catholic Teachings

America First

For days, weeks and possibly months, the political sport of dissecting the election will continue. A wide range of explanations will emanate from leaders of both political parties, elected officials at all levels of government, commentators and the media. As we did during the campaign, we run the risk of over load and possibly even addiction. It might be more profitable to step back and slightly alter what we should examine. I suggest vivisecting the electorate itself—the people of the United States, regardless of how they voted or why they voted as they did. Who are we as a people? And what does it mean to put America first.

“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.

If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.

I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.

It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.

Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.

Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.

The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.

I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.

Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.
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Rushing the Pope

Every pope has to deal with throngs of people. They crowd St. Peter’s Square, the streets along papal routes, and push past each other for at least a view, if not an opportunity to touch. But Pope Francis has to fend off more than any of his predecessors, for he has been “rushed”, a.k.a. “Limbaughed”. Yup, the same. The talk show host who, in his own mind, is larger than life.

In my more sane moments, I believe that it is better to ignore people like Limbaugh. So much of what he says is spoken out of ignorance—in the true sense of the word. He lacks knowledge. Giving him more attention runs the risk of expanding his already immense ego. However, he has a large following, turning the old aphorism into a truism: He knows just enough to be dangerous. On top of which he seems to be a touch schizophrenic. First he liked Francis, now he despises him. All within seven months.

For the first few months Limbaugh waxed ineloquently about the pope, assuming he was a conservative who would make the liberals—both in and outside the church—squirm. When answering questions and consenting to interviews, the pope mused about equality and acceptance. Still, he did not fundamentally alter church teaching. He even promulgated a document mostly written by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Then came Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. This is an almost overwhelming document. It is not written in typical ecclesiastical language. Nor is it an academic treatise from an ivory tower. It is the result of a life lived among God’s people. It is very readable, personal, even tender in style. But it is also uncomfortable in its call to joy and in its challenge to the economic principles and individualism that have seduced many a believer and obscured the teachings of Jesus. Hence, the title.

This is all about the Gospel. It is not an economic document, but it recognizes that the Good News of Jesus Christ must be applied to every facet of life, even the economy. In fact, given the desire for wealth, the drive to maximize profit at the expense of human beings, The Joy of the Gospel is profoundly applicable to the economy. That’s what bothers people like Limbaugh.

Like many others who have criticized Pope Francis’ Exhortation, Limbaugh rants against the application of the Gospel to economics. As if the economy is somehow exempt from the Good News, from the call of Jesus. As if capitalism is a competing gospel. Sadly, for many an American I suspect it is.

Limbaugh probably doesn’t know that the term capitalism is of relatively recent coinage. It is anachronistic to suggest that it is the economic principle on which this nation has built. As an economic system, it can only claim our allegiance if it advances the principles of the Gospel. Unfettered capitalism certainly does not.

Jesus came to free us from sin. However, that terminology has become almost meaningless in today’s world, because while we easily condemn one another, we rarely look to the sin in ourselves. We do not bother to question what drives us on a daily basis.

Perhaps capitalism is not inherently evil. But no system that places profit over people, that dismisses the downtrodden or disperses inequality can simultaneously advance the Gospel. Dependence has been imbued with a negative connotation in the capitalistic world. Yet Jesus calls us to be dependent on God. It is not for nothing that he cautions us, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Popes are not always right. And there is room for dialogue and even disagreement. But one has to wonder why so many apostles of capitalism are so uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ apostolic letter. They seem more reactionary than dialogic in their dissent—squirming as the Gospel inches ever closer to their raison d’être.

I am reminded of a scene in John’s Gospel in which Jesus’ teaching makes many of his listeners uncomfortable, causing even some of his disciples to abandon him. He then turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you wish to leave also?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Rush Limbaugh and his kind turn their backs and leave, I think I’ll stay for awhile.
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Democracy in the Catholic Church

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a moment. We’re not there, yet. Pope Francis has asked that every parish, meaning every practicing Catholic, weigh in on significant issues of faith—same-sex marriage, birth control, divorce, to name just three. He’s taking a poll. But what does this mean?

First of all, it signifies that all the people have a voice in church teaching. Now before conservatives get too worked up, this is not really radical. Merely unusual. For too long, there has been a tendency to confuse the “Church” with the Vatican, or its institutional structure; a tendency to confuse the authority of the pope and bishops with the “faith” of the church. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the church is the people of God. Underlying every Catholic doctrine is the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the people. In the simplest of terms, this means that the entire people cannot err in faith—they cannot believe something contrary to the truth. An individual, a parish, a diocese, even an entire country can be in error, but not the whole people. Collectively they have been given the deposit of faith.

Although possibly only an academic distinction, it should be noted that not even the pope can declare something infallible that the people themselves do not believe.

It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares that the keys of the kingdom belong to Peter. But in context, Jesus places Peter in charge as “first among equals”. It was not a power play. Peter was to be the source of unity, who would exercise authority in order to hold the church together. Scholars note that in all the Gospels, when any list of apostles is given, Peter is always mentioned first and only Peter speaks for the entire group. That indicates the position Peter enjoyed among the twelve. But even then, it was not absolute.

In the Acts of the Apostles we see that Paul, also an Apostle—though not one of the twelve—challenges Peter. He does so not to usurp the authority of Peter. He does not even attempt to. Rather, Paul makes sure that Peter exercises his authority correctly. That he embraces the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Catholic theology, the pope is the successor of Peter. So he possesses that same role of authority and unity. But there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the authority. A good example is the church’s teaching on birth control. Pope John XXIII established a commission to examine whether or not artificial contraception was intrinsically evil. Following his election, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72.

It remains a sad historical reality that at the conclusion of the study two reports were presented to Paul VI. The official report was signed by 65 members—including every lay person on the commission, hence anyone who had received the Sacrament of Marriage. Their conclusion was artificial contraception is not intrinsically evil. But there was a minority report (isn’t there always?). The minority report was signed by 7 clerics (4 priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops), none of whom was married. Paul VI promulgated the minority report. Where was the sensus fidelium in 1967? By the way, for any Americans reading this blog, we have additional reason for shame. Two American priests drafted the minority report!

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that Paul VI was wise enough not to claim infallibility! That would have been a mess, for the best studies indicate that the number of married Catholics who practice artificial birth control may be as high as 80%. Pope Francis has decided to give proper weight to the sensus fidelium.

Does this mean the Catholic Church will become a democracy? Perhaps not. But for the long suffering, this is the same excitement that stirred in people from the American Revolution to the Arab Spring. Pope Francis has welcomed the Holy Spirit back to Rome after far too long a vacation!
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We Have a Pope!

In Latin, “Habemus Papam”. These are the words the whole Catholic world has been waiting to hear. But hold on. This is not a futuristic blog. As of this hour, the conclave has not yet convened; the new pope has not been elected. And, no. I do not know who he will be. However, this much is clear. When the world hears those two Latin words proclaimed from the Vatican, the Catholic Church will either change, or die.

Much has been written (including by this author) about the regression of the church under the leadership of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The issue, though, is not whether the church continues its backward movement. The real question is whether or not the institutional church still has vision; whether or not the new pope has the ability to see. Period.

There is a common misperception, particularly among Catholics, that the church never changes--that it has been the same for more than two thousand years, and that this is reflected in its teachings. This contributed to the difficulty many people had with accepting the Second Vatican Council. The truth, however, is that the church is like the rest of life, at least in this regard: Change is the only constant.

Even in the last 30 years, the church has been changing, albeit in a reversal of the classic two-step dance. The Catholic version has been two steps backward, one step forward. That dance has been inching the Catholic Church into irrelevance, and the proclamation of the Gospel has suffered. A sober judgement is that John Paul II and Benedict XVI failed in their efforts to lead. At least in sum. On individual issues, they succeeded, sometimes even advancing cogent arguments, most notably on issues of social justice.

They also attempted to distinguish the Christian Faith--specifically the Catholic Church--from other religions, contending against a relativistic attitude toward religion and arguing that all religions are not equal; that they are not merely different pathways to the same goal. That position is debatable, but both popes presented sustainable arguments for discussion.

Their failure occurred primarily in the internal structure of the Church and in their inability to recognize the overlap of that structure with the reality of the outside world. In an ongoing attempt to shore up papal power they entrenched themselves in authoritarianism. In the process they sought to stifle discussion and creative thought. The role of women serves as example.

At a Wednesday audience, John Paul II made the declaration that the question of women priests was decided. Therefore, further discussion was to end. That was a stroke of arrogance that made even this writer blush. No one, not even the Pope, has the authority to tell people what they can and cannot talk about and certainly not what they can or cannot think. That is a viewpoint more becoming of dictators and despots than of popes.

A second example is homosexuality and the turning of a blind eye to science. The overwhelming scientific evidence supports the idea that homosexuality is part of God’s creative process, not a moral choice. The Catholic Church possesses a rich and unequaled heritage in scriptural scholarship and biblical interpretation. Yet sadly, the area of sexuality (both hetero and homo) is an aberrant example of literalism. Particularly on the issue of gay rights, the church’s arguments are not supportable. Although many people are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality, that bias is rooted primarily in prejudice and ignorance. Not to mention resistance to the Holy Spirit.

The world as a whole is moving toward more democracy and greater transparency. The Catholic Church must embrace elements of both if it wants to continue being a voice for truth; if it wants to continue to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a divided world. So...

Habemus Papam. Maybe. The words themselves will mean nothing if the new pope cannot see--an ability that should be a pre-requisite for electing anyone pope.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope no longer ignores one half of the world’s population--women.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope recognizes the hand of God in all elements of creation.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope recognizes the presence of Jesus in every human being.

Habemus Papam. If. The new pope does not attempt to control everyone’s life--especially in the bedroom.

Habemus Papam? Maybe.
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The Democratic Party Platform

It is to be expected that certain religious leaders, specifically certain Catholic bishops, would find fault with the Democratic Party Platform. However, once again, the response is over the top. Bishop Tomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is the latest culprit in attempts to distort Catholic teaching and manipulate the electorate. His letter in the Bishop’s Column of Catholic Times is a case in point.

It is not easy to know where to begin a response. One of the problems I have with these kinds of statements/articles, is that they are deceptive and manipulative. In that, they are also dishonest. Although the bishop claims that he is not attempting to tell people who to vote for, that is exactly his purpose. He exposes his true intent when he refers to President Obama as "The Leader". That is not even a remotely subtle reference to the head of North Korea. It is more even shameful than the attacks claiming that President Obama is a Muslim, or not a U.S. citizen. More shameful because of its subterfuge.

In addressing the original exclusion of the word "God" from the Democratic Party Platform, the bishop implies, as did many pundits, that the exclusion was itself apostasy by the Democratic Party. From my personal perspective, God should never have been removed in the first place. Still, the bishop's implication is simply not true. There is a growing number of agnostic/atheist citizens in this country. Belief in God is a personal choice that people should be free to make. So is non-belief. It is one thing for people to reference God in speech (it seems that every candidate running for office must conclude with "God bless the United States of America"). It is quite another for a party to write into its platform a belief system that excludes a significant part of the populace. The conservative media response, as well as that of Bishop Paprocki, was debunked by Shakespeare years ago in the words of Macbeth, "...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The bishop then moves to his two real concerns: abortion and same-sex marriage. The reasoning here does more than defy logic. It consigns logic to a world of oblivion. He is also wrong on the facts.

In the case of abortion, he writes that the 1992 platform said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". It did not. The first mention of abortion in the 1992 platform occurs in the section titled "Affordable Health Care". There, the platform reads: "...provide for the full range of reproductive choice—education, counseling, access to contraceptives, and the right to a safe, legal abortion." Later, in the section titled "Choice", the document reads "The goal of our nation must be to make abortion less necessary, not more difficult or more dangerous." The 2012 platform reads: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe V. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay". That language of ability to pay was also used in  the 1992 platform: "Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right." Very disingenuously, the bishop suggests that the Democratic Party Platform for 2012 changes its position on abortion from 1992. It does not and he is wrong.

The bishop attempts to link abortion and same sex marriage in the same category, namely, "intrinsic evil". It is almost tedious to have to pick apart the arguments of the bishop. They are presented in a manner that skews truth and defies argument. But argue we must. Again we are confronted with implication. The bishop suggests that abortion is an "intrinsic evil". If so, that would lead to the conclusion that it can never be justified. However, even official Catholic teaching allows for what is called a "therapeutic" abortion. It is rare, and it deals with intentionality, but the very term is an acknowledgement that the Church allows for abortions in extremely rare cases. I do not intend to equivocate. The issue of a woman's right to choose is far more extensive than a therapeutic abortion. Certainly one can approve of the latter while objecting to the former. But honesty would suggest that the argument cannot rest on "intrinsic evil".

As for same sex marriage, there is no legitimate argument for linking it to abortion as an intrinsic evil. The theological arguments favoring same sex marriage clearly prevent it from being considered intrinsically evil. Scriptural scholarship demonstrates that there is no true prohibition against same sex activity. It also lends support to the idea of same sex marriage.

Almost as disconcerting as his deliberately dishonest arguments about abortion and same sex marriage, is the bishop's offhanded dismissal of other issues that are at least as morally significant. In a truly cavalier choice of words, Paprocki writes of the Republican Party Platform: "One might argue for different methods in the platform to address the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry and to solve the challenges of immigration, but these are prudential judgments about the most effective means of achieving morally desirable ends, not intrinsic evils." What a striking lack of vision and failure of leadership!

If addressing the needs of the poor does not constitute a measure of intrinsic good and evil, the bishop might want to revisit his Bible, specifically the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In the last judgment scene, Jesus identifies a single criterion for admission to the kingdom. It is not how many times one went to church, nor how often one prayed. It is not even who we loved. The only criterion for judging one worthy of the kingdom is how we treat each other. For it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned that we find Jesus, himself.

I wish I could look for better leadership among the country's Catholic bishops. Sadly, however, in the last 30 years we have seen a disastrous decline in the intellectual competence and moral integrity of the U.S. Bishops. Their myopic approach to abortion and homosexuality have left them rudderless as an institution and their leadership morally bankrupt. It has also made it possible to unmask their true intent, regardless of what they say.

Bishop Paprocki claims that he is meeting his responsibilities by writing the article. That to do otherwise would be to abdicate his duty. The truth is a touch more sinister. The factual errors and deliberate intent of the article is itself an abdication of his duty. His true goal is to convince people to vote Republican. In truth, whichever candidates a person votes for is truly and irrevocably a personal decision, and it should not be influenced or directed by fanatical religious leaders who threaten one with the loss of eternal salvation. How pathetic!
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The Phantom Menace: Women Religious and the Catholic Church

The Phantom Menace:
Women Religious and the Catholic Church


Now that I have your attention. No. This is not a blog about a Star Wars episode. It is far more serious. At the same time, not unlike the Star Wars saga, this entry touches upon the aspirations and values of people. Aspirations of equality and values of freedom. Hopefully, it is also a challenge--at least to the Catholic population of America.

Over time there have been many profound reflections on power: its place, use and misuse in history. Frequently it is the subtext of a biography about political leaders. Sometimes, power itself is the subject, occasioning a forthright and direct comment or observation. Or both.

Arguably, the most over-used, and often misquoted, statement about power comes from Lord Acton. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A second statement about power pre-dates Acton by nearly 2,000 years.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” This reflection, admonition, command, (call it what you will), comes from Jesus. It appears in nearly the same words in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. It would appear that the Vatican has deliberately chosen to ignore both of these cautions on power.

Recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s watchdog on doctrine, issued a censure against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The document chastised the sisters for publicly disagreeing with the U.S. Bishops (read health care). More perplexingly, they were admonished for remaining silent on other issues. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Some may think that I exaggerate by casting this in the light of power. However, for much of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Rome (and bishops throughout the world) has turned a deaf ear to Jesus on the very issue of power. The translation I chose uses the word “tyrant”. That may not be as extreme as it first sounds.

The women who have come under censure are highly educated. In fact, as a group they are far more educated priests. They are also profoundly religious and holy servants of the Church. Now Rome comes along and decides that these women, who have dedicated their lives in service of the Gospel, are not competent to run their own affairs. In a phenomenal abuse of power, the Vatican has decided that Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle should now control the LCWR. This includes approving what women may or may not speak at LCWR meetings. Did I mention that the Archbishop is a man?

It is not a stretch to suggest that the U.S. Bishops have opposed the LCWR not because the sisters disagreed with them, but rather because the bishops are speaking themselves into irrelevance. And they are lost.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the bishops are single-issue oriented when it comes to public policy. However, their obsession with electing politicians who claim to be anti-abortion, has left the bishops on the fringe of American life when these same politicians advance legislation that is alien to Gospel values. The sisters were clever enough not to fall into that trap. However, there is a deeper problem. Rome does not seem to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ admonition.

Authority and power are two very different entities. The bishops are concerned that power might slipping through their fingers. This recent censure suggests that the bishops are the only ones who can be right, and everyone else (which includes all women) should serve them and acquiesce to their ideas and interpretations.

By contrast, the sisters are concerned with serving (empowering) the people, especially the poor and marginalized. They are concerned with recognizing the movement of God’s Spirit among all the people. As such, the sisters are the ones who speak with moral authority.

Rome’s censure has caused me to recall a scene in the film “A Man for All Seasons”, about St. Thomas More, who served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. When More was brought up on false charges, one of the accusations was that he opposed the king’s title and claim of supremacy over the church in England.

Cromwell accused More of denying the king’s title by remaining silent. More defended his silence by invoking an ancient adage. “The maxim is ‘qui tacit consentire’. The maxim of the law is silence gives consent.” If the sisters remain silent on positions taken by the bishops, then their silence should be construed as agreement, not opposition. That is not good enough for Rome. The sisters are not only being told what
not to say, they are now being told what to say.

One day the sisters will be vindicated. In ancient mythology Atlas was depicted as holding up the earth. In the real world the Vatican does not hold up the sun. Force and abuse of power cannot hold back the night. Look outside. Darkness is beginning to settle on the men who lord it over the Church.

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What's Wrong with the Catholic Bishops, Part II

What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Part 2


In my last blog, I challenged a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. I suggested that the document disguises a clear bias in favor of Republican political candidates. Nonetheless, the statement cleverly avoids transgressing IRS regulations that prohibit religious organizations from engaging in partisan politics. The rules are the result of granting tax exempt status to religious organizations. In the process, these same regulations should safeguard the free exercise of religion for everyone. That would seem to include not politically coercing congregations during worship services.

Sadly, some individual bishops, don’t seem to understand. Case in point, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois. On April 14, 2012, he preached a homily that was an extreme affront both to the Gospel and to the Constitution.

Jenky does not seem to appreciate the Constitution or the world of debate. Does he truly see himself as so self-important that he (as well as the Bishops’ conference) is always right about everything? That only bishops have the answers to all of life’s questions? He must have failed the course on logic in the seminary, for he appears ignorant of the basic principle of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. The building blocks of compromise and consensus. But his diseased logic is minor compared to the symptom.

He castigated politicians who disagree with the Bishops’ position on health care reform. He then proceeded to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He certainly is entitled to approve or disapprove of any politician. He is even obligated to explain Catholic values (as he understands them), and how they apply to policies under consideration by various government agencies and elected officials. After all, freedom of religion does not equate with the elimination of religion. Politics and religion should not be adversaries in the lives of the citizenry.

However, Bishop Jenky is not entitled to abuse the role of preaching the Word of God by using it for partisan politics. He has no right to belittle and demean the President or any other individual politician. He betrays his own corruption by attempting to tell his congregation that they must oppose one candidate and vote for another.

Contraception is at the heart of Jenky’s tirade. Theologically, the Catholic Church is on dicey ground when it comes to this subject. Already, more than 80% of Catholics practice some form of artificial contraception in their sexual activity. Putting that aside, Jenky’s actions are not really about faith or theology.

It seems to me that he is simply drunk with the perception of his own power. His preaching makes a mockery of religion and a caricature of himself.

I do not wish the people of Peoria to suffer because of the vicious rhetoric of a misguided bishop. But perhaps the only way to rein in such hateful speech is for the IRS to investigate and ultimately strip the Diocese of its tax exempt status.

In the meantime, let’s hope that Jenky’s routine only plays in Peoria.

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What's Wrong with the Bishops, Part I

What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Part 1


Two recent statements, one by a Bishops’ committee, the other by an individual bishop, raise serious questions about the competence and integrity of U.S. Catholic leadership. The first deals with religious freedom and the Constitution, the second with the upcoming election.

One of the beauties of the American experiment in democracy is the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. No freedom, however, can exist unbridled. There are limits. The question will always be whether the common good outweighs the actions of any specific religion. It is part of the price we pay for freedom, democracy and diversity. The alternative is the failed experiences of Christendom and other religiously controlled governments.

In the United States today, as in times past, there are those who would seek—contrary to the Constitution—to severely restrict religious liberty and ban all religious reference from public life. However, the April 12, 2012 statement issued by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is both alarmist and disingenuous. The government is not engaged in an anti-Catholic war.

In sum, the committee’s statement is less than defensible. In part, it is dishonest. The selective quote from Pope Benedict XVI implies that the Department of Health and Human Services requires religious organizations, such as hospitals, to participate in intrinsically evil practices. Such language is extreme and misleading. Whatever the Church’s teaching on contraception, it is not an intrinsically evil act.

A careful reading of the ad hoc committee’s statement exposes a thinly veiled intrusion into partisan politics. It is, in reality, an attempt to arouse fear in Catholic citizens and direct their vote toward Republican candidates. As such, the bishops come close to violating IRS regulations. They do not quite cross the line. However, perhaps because the bishops mask their true intent, they dance so close to the edge as to lose their balance. Collectively, the U.S. Bishops are writing and speaking their way into irrelevance.

The heart of the Gospel, and the message that drove the teachings and actions of Jesus, was and must be non-partisan. It also must be rooted in authentic and compelling theology. The committee’s statement is neither. Would that they engaged solid theological principles and applied them equally to both political parties!

That would be something worth reading and listening to!

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Kingdom Economics and the American Dream

The fallout from the economic meltdown has created great hardship for many Americans, just as it has for people around the globe. It seems that our current situation requires more of us than many citizens, and certainly most elected politicians, are willing to give. So how do we respond to this economic crisis and uncertainty?

One possible starting point is to reimagine the so-called American dream, a task that may prove very difficult, indeed. After all, the idea of the American dream has been around a long time, but it has been defined in different ways at different times. At the risk of political heresy, I suggest that the current version of the dream, as advanced under Ronald Reagan, is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel and should, therefore, be redefined again.

When the American dream was synonymous with owning a home and building the middle class, there was no inherent conflict with Gospel values. In those days workers, to some extent, shared in the profits of the companies for whom they worked. At least the salaries of the executives were not 500 times those of the workers. There seemed to be some acknowledgment that the workers, the ones who actually made the products, were the ones who really made the companies profitable.

Today, politicians are colluding with corporate and financial executives to dismiss the contribution of the workers in pursuit of their own profit. In this collusion, just wages and benefits are not part of their equation. Most amazing has been the way the politicians have deceived so many Americans, duping them into voting against their own best interests. Unfortunately, the effects of this duping extend far beyond the realm of political power.

Since the Reagan Administration, there has been an increasing disregard for the poor and an almost fanatical desire to expand and fill the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, even though Reagan’s “trickle down” economics has been proven a failure. The fact that so many non-wealthy Americans over the last 30 years have bought into this version of the dream (more properly an illusion) makes change difficult, but not impossible. Reagan, of course, is not solely to blame for the corruption of the American dream and the loss of Gospel values. A religious irony is also at play.

Since the advent of televangelism, we have seen numerous preachers restrict their vision of the Gospel to abundant, lavish living. And quite a few of them have demonstrated such living in their own lives. On the surface it may seem silly and gullible for Americans to believe that if they give all their money to the TV preacher, God will return it to them 100 times over. But this is the religious version of a Ponzi scheme, and like all Ponzi schemes it requires gullibility. Unlike Bernie Madoff, however, these preachers are protected by the 1st Amendment’s Freedom of Religion, coupled with the fact that donations are not investments. More insidious, though, is the fact that the televangelist’s scheme is proclaimed in the name of God. The outcome leads otherwise good people to turn their backs on the poor, the sick and the immigrant, in a self-centered pursuit of wealth.

I see two problems at work. The first is one of interpretation, and yes, everyone interprets, even fundamentalists. In John’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Like any passage it can be, and often is, taken out of context. The “abundance” Jesus speaks of has nothing to do with wealth. Being inseparable from the word “life”, it is an image of Jesus, himself, who we are told a couple of chapters later, is the “way, the truth and the life.”

There is no authentic interpretation of the Gospel that does not embrace the plight of the poor and the suffering. Catholic social teaching (sorry, Glenn Beck) uses the profound language “preferential option for the poor.” This theology undergirds how Christians should interact with the world in which we live. One tragedy of modern economics is that the vast majority of our world’s population is being driven deeper and deeper into poverty and destitution. In the United States, the American dream is dissolving with the middle class. I am not attempting to invoke the spectre of class warfare. I am simply noting the repetitious results of studies on the American economy. The disparity and gap between the middle class and the wealthiest Americans has become an almost unbridgeable chasm. These realities lead to the second problem.

Christians are called to build the kingdom of God, but that kingdom appears to be at odds with today’s version of the American dream. At least since the Reagan era, that dream has championed the supremacy of the individual. By contrast, the Gospel calls for building up the community. I have long puzzled about the inability of Christians in America to grasp this inherent contradiction. For some, comprehension has not really been the issue. They have simply chosen the false values of individualism over the Gospel principles of community. Of course, the individual and the community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. But the American view of individualism that has grounded today’s economic system is blatantly anti-Gospel.

The value of our dreams, whether personal or collective, is determined by the effects they have on others. If the American dream is to re-emerge as a legitimate and worthy goal of our citizens, if it is to develop in harmony with the building of the kingdom, then our economic policies cannot be geared toward the few, nor can they benefit primarily the rich. We must, once again, become a nation that cares for the young, the old, the sick and the poor—for all our people.
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America's Lost Gospel

Christianity dominates the religious landscape of the United States. Still, given the great diversity of religious belief in this country, it has always been inaccurate to refer to America as a Christian nation. Today it is also patently false, for America is home to the Lost Gospel.

The Gospel I refer to is not some archeological unearthing of the story of Jesus, like the Gospel of Thomas. Nor is it some discovered fragment like the Gospel of Peter. There were gospels that did not survive with the four canonical ones due to questions of theological accuracy, orthodoxy and history. No, the lost Gospel I refer to is a matter for the modern world and goes to the very core of American Christianity, even Christianity itself, for it is what the four canonical Gospels are collectively all about. It
IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in America today it has been lost. In spite of the fact that many on the religious right claim to be Christians, the Gospel is no longer being lived in the United States and hence, authentic Christianity holds less and less sway. Indeed, America is not a Christian nation.

The evidence has been growing for some time, but has now reached its apex with the deceitful shenanigans of (primarily) Republican members of various state houses. The focus has centered in Wisconsin, but is spreading to one state after another. It has to do with the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, working conditions and benefits. These are core Gospel values.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his now seminal encyclical "Rerum Novarum", outlining the rights of workers and cautioning against unrestricted capitalism. In doing so he gave rise to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, recognizing that at its heart, the Good News of Jesus Christ is a "social" Gospel. That 19th century encyclical was only the first in a long line of unbroken teachings from successive popes. These teachings bring the Gospel of Jesus to bear on the increasing demands of a world shattered by injustice, violence and greed. So the ensuing encyclicals address issues of social order, peace, migration and human dignity.

It is not incumbent upon non-Catholics to embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice. But it might be wise for everyone to heed the warnings against an unbridled capitalism that places the financial bottom line above the good of human beings.

I am reminded of how the Reagan Administration heralded the neutron bomb. This is a weapon designed to do maximum damage to human beings, while leaving buildings and infrastructure in place. Could there be a more despicable and inhumane weapon of mass destruction? What does it say of the soul of a nation to place more value on buildings than human life?

Comparing the budget of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators in Wisconsin to the neutron bomb is not a stretch. What does it say about their soul, that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare, the very livelihood, of the people of their state for political and financial gain? Or that they would sacrifice the exact principles that have enabled working class peoples to rise out of poverty? Theirs is a contemporary example of "neutron" thinking.

It is no accident that the first great social encyclical should focus on workers' rights, for it reflected the growing poverty and destitution of the urban poor. As a first critical look at unbridled capitalism, it was nothing short of inspired--sadly, an inspiration that has not taken root in the hearts and minds of most government or corporate leaders.

Collective bargaining does not represent capitulation to every demand of workers or their unions. The emphasis on bargaining enervates a process that allows give-and-take for the good of all. Governor Walker suggests that he does not want to restrict workers' rights to bargain for wages, only benefits. This is disingenuous in the extreme. Wages and benefits are inextricably interwoven together. The wages paid to workers are meaningless if the workers are not provided a working environment that secures safety and provides for their health. Wages do not matter if workers are not provided lunch and work breaks or sick leave. These are but a few examples of what workers have been able to secure through the collective bargaining process. Walker, casting himself more in the role of an authoritarian, medieval prince than a contemporary governor, would have workers return to the days of serfdom, when the prince set the rules of labor--a labor that was characterized by slavery rather than freedom.

Workers have the "right" to collectively bargain. It is not a gift or privilege extended by a paternalistic government. As a moral right it cannot be stripped away by law or edict. The working class should not be used as political pawns in a vain attempt to control the reigns of government and power. Most especially, workers should not be pushed back into 19th century poverty for the financial gain of corporations or the advancement of the super rich.

Writing as I am about the social Gospel of Jesus Christ, I suppose I should say something about Glenn Beck. I am fully aware that he has counseled his audience to leave any Christian Church that preaches a social gospel. Although my readers are unlikely to be among his fans, it is high time for someone to point out that not only is Glenn Beck in no position to offer such advice, he, himself, is not even a Christian. It will probably require a different blog to explain that. For now, it is clear that anyone who would advise people to walk out of a church that preaches the authentic social teaching of Jesus, is an offense to everyone, not least of which, Jesus.

In the meantime, we as a nation must demand that the rights of workers be protected from the kind arrogant assault launched by Governor Walker, lest this neutron thinking take hold and spread even further.
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The Pros and Cons of Vatican Condoms

The Vatican does not really make condoms, that is just intended to be a catchy title. However, the Vatican has made an issue over them for years. Now Pope Benedict XVI has modified the Church's teaching on the use of condoms. This is a modest and significantly restricted change that applies only to preventing the spread of AIDS by people who are HIV-positive. So, before anyone starts talking about seismic or cosmic movement in Church teaching, it would be good to keep a few things in mind.

First of all, Rome is the eternal city. Originally, this was not a reference to the Church. The phrase is a secular one reflecting Rome's ancient history, and its rise as a great empire that, for nearly a thousand years, extended its reach and exerted its power throughout the Western world. There is, however, another way of understanding the phrase "eternal city" and this one is church-specific. I suppose it is pure poetry that Rome should be the center of power and authority in the Catholic Church, for there is no organization in the world that moves slower than the Vatican. It could be argued that a stopped clock moves more quickly.

Second, for many years the rest of the world has recognized and embraced the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the transmission of AIDS. The Pope's statement simply indicates that the slow-moving Catholic Church has finally caught up. Of course, it is also possible that Pope Benedict is redressing the embarrassment of his 2009 statement that rather than preventing the spread of HIV, the distribution of condoms "increases the problem". Regardless, this change in Catholic Church teaching acknowledges that the use of condoms plays a role in eliminating the spread of HIV (and, consequently, other sexually transmitted diseases).

Third, while this modified position on condoms applies to anyone who is infected with HIV, it in no way changes the Church's fundamental opposition to artificial means of birth control. For example, under this new teaching, a husband or wife who is infected with HIV can make use of condoms to prevent spreading the disease to his/her partner, but not to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently, the sound of splitting hairs is just as loud whether or not you are in the forest. After all, even the Church believes in regulating birth, and some of the reasons for choosing contraception are as profound as those for combatting AIDS.

Therefore, in examining the pros of the Pope's new condemn teaching, we should dismiss outright the question of contraception since this new position does not affect that Church teaching. It does not need to anyway, for it is a non-starter. The teaching itself is irrelevant, and this is not an attempt to be insolent. Rather, it is a recognition that the vast majority of Catholics do not adhere to the prohibition against contraception. While It might be difficult for traditionalists to comprehend, there is a foundational principle in Canon Law that no law can take effect unless and until it is accepted by the faithful at large. Although this is a legal precept, the principle applies equally to moral teaching. If the majority of the Church does not accept a teaching, then the teaching holds no sway. A continued harping on contraception by the Pope, or anyone else for that matter, is merely an exercise in futility.

Underlying the new teaching on condoms is a reaffirmation of this principle. The vast majority of people, Catholics included, have not accepted the Church's prohibition on the use of condoms. Instead, they have witnessed the effectiveness of condoms in the fight against AIDS and the spread of HIV. Until now the Church's resistance has rested in part, on its opposition to homosexual activity. With this new position, the Church admits the findings of the scientific world and places the future of the human race above a questionable stance on homosexuality. And since condoms are used the world over, the Pope is simply bringing the Church's teaching into harmony with reality.

This teaching also represents an assent to the work of theologians. For the sake of argument, only, let us grant the Church's teaching on both contraception and homosexuality. At long last Pope Benedict has admitted what theologians have been saying for years, namely, that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is a lesser evil than either artificial birth control or homosexual acts. Remarkable, and rather naive, is the way that Benedict uses intentionality. If a person infected with HIV uses a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease, this is an acceptable moral choice. The deeper reality, of course, is that people in the Church have been using condoms both to combat AIDS and to prevent conception. An insightful interpretation of Benedict's new teaching is that it endorses the first use and implicitly acknowledges the second.

Another, and I'm quite certain unintended, pro of this new teaching is that Benedict has loosed the bonds that for decades have twisted moral theology into a game of mental and verbal gymnastics. Church teaching has long held that it is never permissible to do evil in order to achieve good, so theologians developed the highly creative concept known as "double effect". A classic example is abortion. According to Catholic teaching, one cannot kill a fetus in order to save the life of the mother, because one cannot directly choose evil to accomplish good. However, if doctors were to remove a cancerous uterus from a pregnant woman, that would be acceptable, since the resulting abortion would not be intended. It would be a byproduct of a therapeutic surgery to remove the cancer.

This is more than just academic. As absurd as it sounds, and is, last May, Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, AZ, confirmed the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride who had approved an abortion for a woman 11 weeks pregnant. The abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother. Unlike the therapeutic abortion mentioned above, this one did not involve a life-saving surgery other than the abortion itself. Rather, the doctors believed that neither the mother nor the child would survive the pregnancy. Sr. McBride made a morally correct choice in spite of what ultra-conservative Catholics might think. Her situation gave organizations like "The American Catholic" a raison d'etre. They are, however, wrong.

The absurdity of allowing two lives to end by doing nothing almost speaks for itself. Bishop Olmstead's position was "the end does not justify the means". Perhaps, perhaps not. Choosing not to act in this case seems more like moral cowardice. Claiming to stand on principle is sometimes just a cover for cowering beneath a blanket.

As I said, Benedict almost certainly did not intend to open these floodgates, but if the Church takes its own teaching about sex (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) seriously, then the Pope has admitted that a person can choose evil to accomplish a greater good. Clearly, there is a difference in degree between sexual activity and abortion, but on the simplest of plains, evil is evil. Mind you, I do not grant the Church's position on either contraception or homosexuality and do not see evil in either one. I am merely trying to demonstrate that the position taken by Benedict is not consistent with the idea that one cannot choose evil to achieve good. Perhaps we are witnessing seismic and cosmic changes after all.

As for the cons, well come to think of it, there aren't any--unless you subscribe to "The American Catholic" or belong to some other ultra-conservative band. Even then, the consistent conservative position has generally been to bow to authority and accept whatever the Pope says. Needless to say, it is more than a little ironic to watch these same conservative Catholics reject any teaching they consider too liberal--and they will almost certainly object to this new condom teaching. It is not truth that they cling to so tenaciously. It is their narrow perspective of what truth is.

The real world test, however, will come not in the local dioceses and parishes, but in the supermarket. How quickly will marketing executives capitalize and re-brand their products? The next time you're out shopping, don't be surprised to see newly packaged condoms sporting the slogan: "Vatican seal of approval"!
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Agnosticism and Religious Relevance

According to a number of recent studies, agnosticism is on the rise--at least in the United States and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI has centered his pontificate around leading Europe away from secularism and back to its Christian roots. The inevitable question must be asked: Is religion still relevant?

I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.

In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...

There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.

Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?

In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.

Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.

Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.

R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "It's a strategy for saying we are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.

Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.

For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.
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A Duplicitous Catholic Church

OK. Now that I have your attention, let me hasten to say that not everything in the Catholic Church is dishonest, deceitful or duplicitous. But then we have the Archdiocese of Denver and its actions toward an innocent preschooler. The child in this case has two mommies. Many children do, usually the result of divorce. In this case, the child's mothers are living together in a homosexual relationship.

The official statement of the Denver Archdiocese reads, in part, "Homosexual couples living together as a couple are in disaccord with Catholic teaching." The absurdity of using that statement to justify discrimination leaves one wondering where to begin a response. Whatever one might think about Archbishop Chaput and his ultra-conservative theology is quite beside the point. However, what is directly on point is that the Archbishop is applying Church teaching selectively, targeting only gay couples, and that, simply put, is an abuse of authority.

This is not the first time that the issue of homosexual parents has arisen in regard to a Catholic school in the United States. What is very troubling is that no one takes the authorities to task for decisions that are at least as immoral as the acts that they claim to condemn. I suppose the average Catholic would assume that an Archbishop knows what the teaching of the Catholic Church is. In the case of Archbishop Chaput, they would be wrong--or at least greatly misled.

I hope this does not sound simplistic, but the Catholic Church has a serious problem with sex--any kind of sex--outside of Church-sanctioned marriage. Ironically, that is where most sex actually takes place in the real world! But the teaching of the Catholic Church states that sexual activity is reserved for legitimately married couples--"couple" being understood as a man and a woman. That means that anyone engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital sex is sinning, as are those Catholics who are married outside the Church. This latter group includes those in a first marriage as well as though who are divorced and remarried civilly. In all these cases, a couple is "in disaccord with Catholic teaching." Let's not even begin to look at other teachings such as contraception. So this begs the question, why does not the Archdiocese of Denver also deny enrollment to children whose heterosexual parents are not married, or are married outside the Church?

I am not endorsing such a policy, although I am sure that some bishop, somewhere thinks it is a good idea. To stave off such nonsense, it is worth noting historically that marriage was only first declared a Sacrament by Pope Innocent III in 1208, affirmed by the Second Council of Lyons in 1278 and finally defined by the Council of Trent in 1563. It was not until Trent that the Church claimed jurisdiction over marriage and required couples to marry before a priest. For some 1500+ years, the Catholic Church was quite content for couples to marry civilly and be done with it. Admittedly, laws change. But this brief history calls into question the wisdom of the Church's approach to sex and marriage.

In spite of the fact that the Catholic Church has a major problem with sex outside of marriage, it has a particular problem with homosexuality. No one has, or ever will accuse Archbishop of Chaput of progressive thought. They would be hard-pressed just to make the case that he is even-handed, or to assign him that most treasured of intellectual gifts, integrity. Then again, maybe he really does believe that homosexuality is wrong. Otherwise, one is left to wonder if his attack on this innocent child is not simply a gross example of pandering to the conservative elements of the American culture wars.

To begin with, no child can be held accountable for the actions of its parents. There was a time when society used to look with accusation upon children who were born out of wedlock, even coining a terribly derogatory term to describe them--"bastard". That remained in force until legitimately-born adults claimed it as their own self-identity! In the same way, children are not responsible if their parents are homosexual. Such children can, however, be grateful that they are being raised in a loving home. And if the Scriptures are correct that "Out of the mouths of babes..." then these children have much to teach their archbishops. How ironic that the school in question is named "Sacred Heart of Jesus", a symbol of God's love for all people!

There may be something darker and more sinister going on here, however, than mere authoritarianism. While the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is disordered, and homosexual acts are sinful, it does not actually condemn anyone for being gay. On the other hand its teaching leads gay Catholics to develop a kind of self-loathing, not unlike what many minority groups have experienced over centuries of oppression and abuse. Like minorities, homosexuals have come to realize that they cannot change who or what they are. Like race and ethnicity, homosexuality is a creation and a gift of God.

Of particular note in the Catholic Church are bishops who, over the last several years have been exposed as homosexuals. With that revelation comes the reality that there are even more gay bishops who are required to teach a discredited theology. What kind of self-loathing must they experience as they are pushed into closets of shadow and seclusion? When one considers the insensitivity of the Church to its own leaders, perhaps it is not surprising that discrimination embeds itself in places like Sacred Heart School. Perhaps, not unlike Jesus, it will be the suffering of a child that moves the Catholic Church to reject evil and discriminatory policies that oppress the innocent and bring ridicule upon the Church.
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Catholic Authoritarianism--Unchecked!

George Orwell made two mistakes in his classic novel, "1984". First, the date. Published in 1949 as a cautionary tale to what he perceived as the growing and dangerous totalitarianism of the state, Orwell, missed the target date by about 25 years. This is 2010, not 1984. Second, Orwell focused on the powers of the state, when arguably, the real threat comes from Church authority. Clearly, the civil authorities engage in abusive power and intrusion of privacy. In the United States, the government even suspends the Constitution at will. But it is the Church that engages in the most insidious attempts at mind control. And in the end, it is the control of the mind that allows power to go unchallenged and unchecked.

In 1976, the late Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit, hosted a gathering of Catholics to address concerns about the Church and urge reform. Known as "Call to Action" it quickly spread to other Catholic dioceses and gathered a significant following of laity and clergy, all of whom wanted to see the reforms of the Second Vatican Council fully implemented throughout the United States, and ultimately, the whole Catholic world. Among the demands of Call to Action was more lay participation in the decision making of the Church--clearly part of the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

I remember when Archbishop Mahony of Los Angeles appointed the first woman Chancellor. Sister Cecilia Louise Moore was extremely competent and an excellent choice, and there was some symbolic value to appointing a female chancellor. However, at its core her appointment was slightly above a public relations stunt. After all, she had no real power. That resides with the Moderator of the Curia, and needless to say that position is only filled by a priest--handpicked by the Archbishop.

Now comes an organization, the American Catholic Council, seeking to advance the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, supposedly the official teaching of the Church, being harassed and castigated by the current Archbishop of Detroit, Allen Vigneron. One must stop to wonder if he is at all familiar with the teachings of the Council, himself. One cannot assume that he is, simply because he also is the Archbishop. He has publicly decried the American Catholic Council, asked them to cancel their conference and warned all Catholics, laity and clergy, not to attend. He has demanded that no Catholic institution in the Archdiocese host any part of the conference. This is mind control run amok, but without a George Orwell to alert us to its dangers.

As we have seen over and over, the Catholic Church continues to be run by an old boys club. Yes, it is a tired cliché, but then again, the club itself is getting tired. The tragedy is that the powers that be, namely the Pope and other authorities in Rome, keep appointing as bishops only those apples that fall directly beneath the tree. How can we possibly anticipate that there will be growth and renewal in the Spirit of Vatican II, when each new crop of bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals is consumed with its own importance and the men driven by their own lust for power and control?

For the record, I do not overstate the case. From the parish level up, the voice of the laity is only advisory, not deliberative or decisive. While some few may exert influence, most pastors and bishops are free to ignore the advice of their councils. As for extending the Sacrament of Orders to include more, and some would argue more competent, persons, the Vatican has set up stumbling blocks for both women and married men. While people may disagree about the wisdom of admitting women to the priesthood, there is simply no sound theological, that is to say, doctrinal position against it. At best, the ordination of women is a disciplinary issue and, like married clergy, could be changed tomorrow if the Pope were a little more open to the movement of the Spirit.

Speaking of the movement of the Spirit, the American Catholic Council is convening its conference in Detroit on Pentecost, 2011. Historically, there has always been a certain tension between the free movement of the Spirit in the Church and the structured authority of the hierarchy. This tension is valuable, serving as a sort of checks and balances. Lately, it seems the balance has been lost as the Spirit is continually ignored. This might be a good time to remind Archbishop Vigneron that the Holy Spirit has been gifted by God to the entire church, not just to the clergy, and certainly not just to the Pope and bishops. Ultimately, it is the faith of the people, not the power of the bishops, that determines truth.

Welcome, Catholics, to Detroit--but only if you do not live here.
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The War in Afghanistan--10 years later

President Obama, among others, is fond of saying that the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, while the war in Iraq was a war of choice. Those designations have been used, in part, to emphasize the extraordinary miscalculations of the Bush Administration between 2001 and 2009. A significant part of the problem was the way the two wars were prosecuted, coupled with the fact that the majority of our resources were directed to the war in Iraq--the one of so-called choice.

People are divided, and probably always will be, over the issue of these wars and their perceived necessities. Those who supported President Bush feel the hairs on their neck rise in indignation whenever someone suggests that the war in Iraq was about oil. Still, an honest exchange demands that we at least acknowledge what clever pundits have said for years: If Iraq produced bananas instead of oil, we would never have gone there.

The truth to that rather colloquial wisdom can be seen in the way the Bush Administration neglected Afghanistan in its pursuit of Iraq. After all, if one were to grant the claim that Afghanistan was/is a war of necessity, then why was it not the primary focus of military operations? It appears that capturing Saddam Hussein, a personal ambition of Bush, was more important that capturing Osama Bin Laden, a national need of the country and much of the world. Yet, it seems to me that distinguishing these two wars between necessity and choice, does not address the whole truth.

One reason this distinction has been drawn is that Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was based in Afghanistan. Although not everyone will agree, one can legitimately argue that sending the U.S. military to route Al Qaeda and capture Osama Bin Laden was a justified response. Due to the ineptitude of the Bush Administration, and the unjustified war in Iraq, that is not the situation we find ourselves in today.

It is not my intent here to argue over the justifications of this or any war. I would suggest that those interested in the truth about just wars follow this link to the Just War Doctrine. My purpose here is of a different nature. My purpose is to question why the United States is still in Afghanistan, beginning its 10th year of military operations.

The question is not wholly a political or military one. If we look at the reasons for entering Afghanistan in the first place, then Al Qaeda has been routed. Osama Bin Laden has not only not been captured, but he fled Afghanistan long ago. George W. Bush ran for office expressly opposed to nation building. And yet, that political argument should dominate the discussion today, for it is the only possible reason that the U.S. is still waging this war. Somehow, the war morphed from dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda into dismantling and defeating the Taliban.

I personally despise everything that the Taliban stands for and if they were attempting to run my country or even run for political power, I would oppose them in every justifiable way. But they are not! The Taliban control some 90% of their own country and, for the most part, are supported by the people--at least those in the rural areas that they dominate. So what is the real truth here, 9+ years later?

The United States is engaged in the worst possible example of nation-building. On this issue we find ourselves in contradiction with stated U.S. policy. We are also in direct contradiction of essential Catholic teaching. Embedded within the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church is that all peoples have a right to self-determination, period. People have a right to choose their own government, even if we disapprove of their choice. They are not answerable to the United States of America for that choice!

Democracy in most of its current forms represents a highly evolved form of government. It is certainly a pertinent example of self-determination. At its core is the right to vote, and that means the right to choose. Sadly, most Americans do not want to admit that we are indoctrinated in the principles of our democracy, and that we are unable to understand how any people could choose another form of government. Worse, that indoctrination frequently prevents us from accepting the choices other people make.

The result is that the history of U.S. foreign relations is rife with interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Sometimes it has led America to side with dictators and despots, including Saddam Hussein, while they run roughshod over the civil rights and liberties of their own people. Sometimes we have been directly involved in the overthrow of legitimately elected governments. Arguably, the most notorious example is the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile, and America's subsequent support for the dictator Pinochet.

When the people of Nicaragua voted the Sandinistas into power, the Reagan Administration violated U.S. law, supporting the Contras in their violent attacks against both political and civilian targets. Why these actions still do not shock the conscience of the American people is mystifying. One might argue strongly that the plight of the oppressed is intensified by this kind of American interference.

The political issues aside, the deepest truth remains that all people have a right to self-determination. If they decide that they can no longer abide the despotic and arbitrary actions of a government, such as the Taliban, it is their right to rise up and seek new leadership. But it is also their right to choose the Taliban.

This might be a good time to end this blog. It might also be a good time for the U.S. to exit Afghanistan!
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Abortion - Part 5 (conclusion!)--The Morning After Pill

In the previous blogs on abortion, I have presented the supporting evidence from science and the argumentation from theology that enable us to use day 14 of embryological development as the time of individuation or ensoulment. These arguments are both rooted in the process of twinning. I have also noted that on extreme occasions, twinning can take place after day 14, but is no longer possible after day 21.

There is a practical concern here that also must be addressed. Most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days. So while I have already made the argument in support of stem cell research, how does this information impact the abortion debate? After all, if most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days, and by this time we clearly have an individuated human person, are we not in the same place regarding abortion as we are today?

We would be, were it not for the development of the morning after pill. This pill offers us some hope in eliminating the need for abortion in the first place. At this point in the discussion, we need to address the objections both to the morning after pill and to inter-uterine devices. Up until now they have often been referred to as abortifacients. The argument of the Catholic Church, among others, has been that since these options do not prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg, they do not prevent conception, but actually induce an abortion by preventing the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall. It is actually a little more complex than that, and by linking the scientific concept of individuation to the theological belief in ensoulment (God directly creating the human soul), the abortifacient argument collapses.

I would like to begin by taking a more careful look at the morning after pill. The use of inter-uterine devices applies to the third part of this examination, when the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall. However, they also demand more of the woman. Most women would find using a pill preferable to inserting a device. So what exactly does the morning after pill do?

The hormone in the pill has a threefold effect: 1) It prevents ovulation. If the ovaries do not release eggs, then no fertilization or conception can take place; 2) If ovulation has already taken place, the hormone thickens the cervical mucus, thus blocking the sperm and keeping it from joining with the egg; 3) In case an egg has been fertilized, the hormone thins the lining of the uterus, thus making it unlikely that a fertilized egg would be able to implant in the womb. It is at this point that the inter-uterine device and the morning after pill have the same effect. The point is that all of the above processes take place within the first six days, since that is when implantation occurs. Six days are significantly shy of the 14 days required for individuation or ensoulment.

In the case of the morning after pill, it must be taken within five days to still be effective. Obviously, the earlier it is taken, the better. Clearly, the use of the morning after pill does not cause an abortion, and so can no longer be referred to as an abortifacient. More to the point, if the morning after pill is made more readily available to women the world over, we may be able to limit, if not fully eliminate, the need for abortion in the first place.

I stated in part 2 of this series: "Nobody can possibly think that abortion is a good thing, even if some believe it is occasionally necessary." If our ultimate goal is, in fact, the elimination of abortion, should we not establish a policy that makes the morning after pill available to all women? Those who oppose this policy while simultaneously claiming to oppose abortion are, at least in part, responsible for abortion's continued demand.

The purpose of this series was to create a new foundation and context for the abortion debate, and to change the language in order that both sides would actually communicate with each other in pursuit of a common resolution to this issue. I hope I have succeeded.
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Abortion - Part 4--Stem Cell Research

As I continue my series of blogs on abortion, I realize that some people may be startled by the title. I chose this not so much to be provocative, though all my friends know I don't shy away from that designation. I actually chose the title because it is my hope that if enough people read the blogs and discuss the material, then maybe we can have an impact on the debate over abortion. With the use of both modern scientific studies and theological reflection, I have already offered support for altering the foundational terminology used in the abortion debate, specifically changing the language from human life to human person.

I noted in the second part of this series that rights append to an individual human person, not to human life in general. However, prior to day 14 we have human life that has not yet been individuated. We do not have a human person. Simply put, that means interrupting the embryological development prior to day 14 is not equivalent to taking the life of a human being and should not be construed as tantamount to abortion. Of particular note is the observation (also in part 2) that viability is not required for individuation or personhood. Far from silencing the anti-abortion lobby, I believe their voice and argument are augmented by this distinction, but their case cannot be made until day 14.

Today, I would like to examine the implication of this argument for embryonic stem cell research. No one questions the overall goals of scientists who pursue such studies. While the outcome of all investigative science is uncertain, the use of embryonic stem cells holds out significant hope for medical breakthrough on a whole host of diseases. This is due in part to the fact that embryonic stem cells are unspecialized and, through a process known as cell division, can renew themselves even after long periods of inactivity. Also, precisely because they are unspecialized, they can be coaxed to develop into a number of different cells--a process known as differentiation. For example, a stem cell could be made to develop into a brain cell or a red blood cell.

It is true that scientists can also avail themselves of adult stem cell research that does not result in the destruction of an embryo. Clearly, scientists should not ignore of this area of study. However, adult stem cells do not possess all the same capacities of embryonic stem cells. Although adult stem cells are thought to be undifferentiated, when removed from the body, their ability to divide is limited. This makes it difficult for scientists to generate large quantities of cells, thereby limiting their research. Both embryonic and adult stem cells offer hope for medical treatment and possible cures, and both should be part of the research process.

The primary opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that it necessitates the destruction of the embryo. I acknowledge that reality. However, what emerges from the discussion in this series of blogs, is that the real issue should be when the stem cells are removed and the embryo destroyed. In order to have stem cells with the highest potential research value, scientists seek to acquire them between 5 and 7 days following fertilization. This is long before individuation and the creation of the human soul. That being the case, stem cell research cannot be equated with abortion. This mutes any moral objection, since a human being is not sacrificed in the pursuit of scientific research.

If one grants the argumentation so far regarding individuation and ensoulment, it is still possible that one more objection might be made raised against embryonic stem cell research. That objection would arise from a modified contraceptive perspective. Since the contraceptive issue is even more intimately connected with the primary subject of the next blog, I will reserve my argument until then.
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Abortion - Part 3

My last blog examined the science behind twinning and the principle of individuation. In sum, a fertilized egg can split into identical twins until day 14 (in very rare circumstances, day 21). Even though the absolute cut off date for twinning is the 21st day, I restricted the discussion to day 14, because it is the more normal cut off time. As a matter of practical reality, either date will serve the same purpose since most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days. Still, after the cut off date twinning is no longer possible and we now have individuation--an individually constituted human person. Because of the scientific information regarding individuation, I have suggested, as a matter of precision, using the term human person instead of human life in the abortion discussion. We now turn our attention to the theological issue involved in abortion.

For people of faith, at least the Christian faith, God directly creates each individual human soul. The question is when, and the somewhat easy answer so far has been at the moment of conception. This claim, however, does not square with the biological information. It has long been a contention of mine that where theology and the empirical sciences intersect, they must engage in full and open dialogue in order to arrive at the truth. In the area of abortion, that truth turns on the science of individuation.

The first theological step is to acknowledge that, like all elements of faith, the existence of the human soul cannot be proved. It is accepted as an article of faith in part because we believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and the existence of the soul is that image within each one of us. Precisely because the soul is our identification with God, it is the source of our immortality or promise of resurrection. However, it is not incumbent upon theology to prove the existence of the soul. In fact, were it possible to do so it would no longer be a matter of faith. Since it is also true that no one can disprove the existence of the soul, there remains a need to try to determine when the soul is created. This is known by the theological term "ensoulment". I believe that the convergence of science and religion ultimately leads to consensus on this point.

This is the second theological step: to ascertain, acknowledge and then integrate what the empirical sciences are able to determine about the process of individuation with the theological belief in the human soul. Although many people remain comfortable with suggesting that the soul is created when human life begins, namely, at the moment of conception, that simply does not square with the biological information available to us today. To be specific, individuation cannot be determined with any certainty until after the twinning process is no longer possible. Until that point, we may end up with one embryo becoming two or three. At issue is the fact that two souls cannot simultaneously reside in one body. Once the possibility of twinning has concluded, however, the theological principle of ensoulment takes a compelling turn. It clearly links the human soul (a matter of faith) with individuation (a matter of science).

This dialogue between science and religion is neither artificial nor capricious. It enables us to connect the best scientific information with the deepest of faith. Science allows us to peer into the embryological process to understand what actually happens after fertilization. As such, science issues a caution to theology on the question of ensoulment. At the same time, science does not contradict faith. Rather it strengthens and supports the argumentation for the existence of the soul, while leaving that argument itself firmly within the realm of theology. This dialogue also retains God as an active agent in the creation process, since theology tells us that at some point God must directly create the individual soul. It seems clear to me that science and theology are not competing disciplines, and that people of faith need no longer fear the knowledge garnered from scientific investigation.

More importantly the dialogue between science and religion provides a mutually acceptable foundation for grounding legal arguments and public policy decisions.

The next blog in this series will further examine the importance of shifting our concept from human life to human person in the legal arena and support for further scientific studies.
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Abortion - Part 1

Recently, I was informed by some friends that my blogs are long. And I thought they knew me! Although I understand a blog to be shorter, in principle, than an article, I still like to make it comprehensive and complete. BUT, I have heard, so I will divide the topic of this blog into parts.

For some time now I have been trying to develop an approach to the abortion debate that might achieve some civility between the camps and perhaps even lead to an acceptable compromise or national consensus.

In a conversation I had recently with a friend, I raised this issue. His response was something to the effect that the debate over abortion is over. Since we did not pursue it, I'm not sure what he meant. Abortion is certainly established law in terms of Roe v. Wade. Yet the current Supreme Court, while upholding elements of the 1973 ruling, has also continued to chip away at the legal protections to a woman's right to choose. The fact that abortion is not as prominent an issue in this election cycle also does not mean that it is settled as far as the general population is concerned. And it clearly is not settled as far as politicians are concerned. There is a bill proposed in the House of Representatives to make the Hyde amendment permanent U.S. law. Sadly, but predictably, it is supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The Hyde amendment, in force now for over 30 years, requires renewal every year. It bans the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. What about the President?

One of the responsibilities of the President of the United States is to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court. For the foreseeable future, abortion will continue to be raised each time a vacancy occurs on the high court, which means the President will seek a nominee who is confirmable, read one who can pass the abortion litmus test--a test administered from both sides of the debate. During the confirmation process, senators will attempt to get the nominee to commit himself or herself to a legal position regarding Roe v. Wade. Correct that. The senators will try to get the nominee to commit to a political position on Roe v. Wade, with the more clever appointees dodging the issue--just like politicians! At the same time various pundits will weigh in on the issue. We will hear the voices of those who support Roe v. Wade and those who oppose it. We will be subjected to the ideologies of those who support a woman's right to choose and those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. In the simplistic dialogue and labeling that characterize so much of our national discourse, we will hear from those who are "pro-choice" and those who are "pro-life".

In an ideal society, abortion should not be part of a litmus test for being confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. The Justices do far more than hear abortion cases, and their decisions have profound impact on nearly every aspect of American life. We, of course, do not live in an ideal society. Nonetheless, to begin a process of moving away from the abortion litmus test, let me suggest the following:

First of all, sound bites and labels. While they might score points and be successful in the short term are ultimately degrading in the long run and contribute to what has now become one of the greatest tragedies of modern U.S. life: the dumbing down of America. Take for example the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life". Of these two, "pro-choice" is the more accurate, since it primarily indicates support for a woman's right to choose. However, there exist many nuances to being pro-choice and a certain amount of complexity exists in trying to define someone who identifies with this label. As for the "pro-life" label, it is even more complex. The only so-called pro-life issue for most of this movement is being anti-abortion. That much is clear. How else to explain their total disregard for all other aspects of life that allow people to actually live, such as feeding food for the hungry, caring for the homeless, providing universal health care? The list goes on. Clearly, complexity defines this group since major church organizations that are anti-abortion also identify as pro-life in many other areas. I must, however, give the political arm of the "pro-life" movement credit. For while they often oppose all legislation that truly advances human life and dignity for the born, they remain steadfast in their opposition to aborting the unborn. Two results? They have hoodwinked good religious people, and the dumbed down American public actually buys the pro-life label!

So, if not sound bites, then what? I deplore the kind of labels that drive people into opposing camps and create walls of separation over which none can speak nor hear. At the same time language, or more precisely terminology, is essential to understanding another's speech and analyzing another's concepts. It is to this task that I suggest we turn our attention in an attempt to move the abortion debate toward a national consensus. It will require a willingness to think, to talk and to listen. The extremes from both sides will probably refuse to engage. We cannot control them. But we should not let their refusal control us. So for the rest of us....

It seems to me that the first hurdle we must get over is the term "human life". Religious groups as diverse as Christians and Mormons have held that human life begins from the moment of conception. In the past some scientists have opposed that notion. But today, even most scientists would agree that the life process that begins at conception is a human one. It is a long process and the majority of fetuses will actually spontaneously abort. But all things being equal, when human beings conceive, what emerges nine months later is another human being. Still, "human life" and "human being" are not co-terminus. We must ask the question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person?

Up next, an attempt to answer that question.
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9/11--A Day of Remembrance and Forgiveness

The 20th Century has often been cited as the most violent in human history. The two world wars, coupled with seemingly unending civil conflicts; military coups and repressive dictatorships; genocide in all regions of the globe; the rising specter of street violence and escalating terrorist activities; all these succeeded in nearly numbing the world to the horrors of violence. It is almost surprising, then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should have so stunned the sensitivities of the world, that for a brief moment there arose a renewed sense of humanity and common purpose.

More than stunned, the world found itself in a state of shock. Partly because nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a matter of minutes, partly because more than 70 countries lost citizens in the attacks, and partly because this all happened on U.S. soil--a land often thought to be immune from such foreign violence. For almost everyone, the attacks shattered the routine of a tranquil September morning. As we look back on the past nine years, we find so much to commemorate on this anniversary, the most treasured being the lost lives--not only of innocent workers and travelers, but also of the heroic emergency personnel who risked everything to bring others to safety.

Few, if any, experiences in life are as emotionally draining as the death of a loved one. When that death is caused by unprovoked violence or terrorism, the bonds of love only grow stronger. In the process, the human heart is stirred to canonize the memory, and the will is driven to avenge the lives of those so unjustly reduced to an untimely death. In reality, however, that stirring of the heart and driving of the will are polar opposites that cannot coexist in any kind of peace or harmony. The bonds of love that are sealed in the heart end up shattered by the pursuit of vengeance. The memories of loved ones lost are betrayed in a relentless desire for retaliation. Such is this tragic polarity that the same pain that tears us apart ends up being inflicted on other people, who also lose innocent loved ones, thus creating a spiraling cycle of violence from which we can rarely extract ourselves.

Memorial celebrations, museums and monuments are a necessary part of collective therapy. War is not. Retelling stories of life, and remembering heroic acts inspire admiration. War does not. Embracing and supporting one another strengthens the spirit and initiates healing. War cannot. War is simply the most powerful, organized and hypnotic example of a violence unleashed in response to a violence perpetrated.

Let me be clear. People who execute the kind of violence we witness in acts of terrorism must be held accountable and brought to answer for their actions. But our responses are often out of proportion and far beyond reason. It is no accident that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made with haste in the midst of the confusion that followed 9/11. And given that the entire country was in the grip of fear, it is no wonder that few sane and thoughtful voices were to be found opposing the war. Even religious leaders from a variety of traditions capitulated to the seduction of violence. It is also a little ironic that our political leaders would ignore a guiding principle of counseling, namely, not to make any major decisions while in the throws of emotion. Such is the power and effect of this kind of violence. It is called terrorism for a reason: It strikes fear and terror deep into the psyche of even the most thoughtful and peaceful people.

So if war is not the best response, what is? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were discussing forgiveness. During our exchange he told me that he could never forgive the terrorists who organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. I believe that to be a common, perhaps near universal feeling. It also is quite understandable. It is far easier to give into the desire for retaliation, as happened nine years ago. Learning to forgive takes repeated effort in a myriad of situations. In any given circumstance it also takes time.

Immediately following 9/11 I did not feel like forgiving any more than others did. But consider what resulted from an unwillingness even to try to forgive. The United States has spent nearly a decade waging war in Afghanistan. In the process, the goals advanced to justify the war have not been met. We have failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, and countless innocents have lost their lives in this conflict. We have even managed to use video games (drones) far from the battle field to kill innocent Afghanis while protecting American soldiers.

Add to this the corrupting influence of vengeance and its unquenchable thirst for violence. This corruption distorted our thinking to the point that we launched a second, illegal and immoral war--one not even connected to the terrorist attacks. That war cost many more billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American lives, hundreds of allied casualties and another countless number of innocent Iraqi deaths. On balance alone, these two wars cost more than the 9/11 attacks both in terms of money and lives. The second war also squandered the goodwill of a world community that was willing to seek the common good. Instead it reduced the United States to the same level as the terrorists themselves.

This was the fear that gripped me immediately after 9/11. The attacks took place on a Tuesday morning. In my preaching the following Sunday, I took direct aim at the words and actions of our political leaders. In my homily I challenged the United States as a nation, and my congregation as believers, to step back from the violence and seek a truer, more peaceable path.

As a Christian I look to Jesus for inspiration and strength of purpose. But I also hope this blog will reach people who are not Christian. So, while Jesus places before us the awesome challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who do us harm, I would like to suggest that for the non-Christian or the non-believer, forgiveness is not just some spiritual exercise. To rise above the destructive forces that tend to overwhelm us; to seek a good in people that they themselves have cloaked in darkness; to forgive the most grievous offenses committed against us; these enable us to tap into what poets call our better nature. That is where we discover the truth of who we are. That is where we learn to call out the best in ourselves and in others. That is where we develop the skills to work together to build a world of justice, of equality, of peace.

Today we remember, we weep and we celebrate those many loved ones who died on 9/11. Perhaps the greatest way to recall the joy they brought into our lives is to forgive those who took those lives away. War and violence will neither give us an internal calm nor bring the world a lasting peace. But if the love that causes us to remember also enables us to forgive, it can overcome violence and establish that elusive, lasting peace that we all claim to desire.
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Women Priests and Pope Benedict's visit to England

Much to the chagrin of certain Church officials, the question of the ordination of women is not going away. Indeed, at this point in our history the Vatican and other Church officials should realize that conversations and movements cannot be ended by fiat. As might be expected, this issue does not divide neatly along sexual lines, although it is interesting that the most stringent defenders of the Church's teaching are men--most of them clergy!

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit England in September, the Catholic Women's Ordination Movement is preparing to put up posters calling on the Pope to "Ordain Women Now." In response, Fr. Stephen Wang, Dean of Studies at Allen Hall Seminary in Westminster, has responded to the campaign with an attempt to defend the Catholic Church's position. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has distributed Fr. Wang's statement, clearly making it their own. Wang's statement is a retread of Papal teaching that is made no more persuasive simply by its repetition. Both the historical, and, even more so, the theological arguments are deficient.

One of the core teachings of Christianity is that Jesus is fully God and fully human. At the same time Jesus is the individuated Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus is one person with two natures--what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. No one can argue that in his humanity Jesus was born, lived and died as a male human being. It seems, though, that the Catholic Church's position on women's ordination plays a little loose with the divinity of Jesus and the fact that God transcends sexual identity.

The term "Christ" is most accurately applied to Jesus after his death and resurrection, for it was not until some time after his earthly existence that Jesus' followers came to recognize him as the savior. It took many years of a living faith and theological debate for the Christian Church to settle upon belief in the hypostatic union, as ultimately defined the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The argument advanced by Fr. Wang, that women cannot stand in the place of Jesus who was a man, may appear appealing at first. However, a priest does not so much stand in the place of the human Jesus, as he (or she?) stands in the place of the resurrected Christ. In theory, at least, the priesthood does not exist for its own sake or that of the individual priest. The Catholic Church has long referred to the priest as an "alter Christus", another Christ, not an "alter Jesus". Therein lies the crux of the ordination problem.

We believe that Jesus is both God and Man, and, although I despise the triteness and superficiality of the WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") campaign, we do look to the earthly ministry of Jesus for examples of how we, both men and women, should live with and respond to one another. On the other hand, it is not the earthly Jesus, but rather the risen Christ who lives among us. It is the risen Christ whom we receive in the Eucharist. And it is the risen Christ whom the priest represents in ministry.

St. Paul guides our understanding and helps to ground the argument in favor of women priests in his Letter to the Galatians. In chapter 3 he states definitively, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This term is applied to Jesus only after his resurrection, and it is this oneness in Christ Jesus that should be reflected in the priesthood.

The determining identity of the priest is not a sexual one. Women can, and do, represent Christ by virtue of their baptism. To deny them the opportunity to serve the Church as priests can only be seen as a form of bias and discrimination. In those churches that do ordain women, the people properly respond to them as representing the risen Christ among them. Although some may disagree with me, it sounds as if that persistent ringing in the background is the Holy Spirit calling women to the priesthood. Maybe it is time for the Catholic Church to answer!
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