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.
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
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.
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
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!
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, people all over the world were stunned and alarmed. Not only did we watch in horror while planes flew into the Twin Towers, we were also dismayed at the level of destruction as the towers collapsed with mini mushroom clouds vainly attempting to shroud the ruin. To make matters worse, the world was subjected to videos of cheering crowds dancing and celebrating these unprovoked acts of death and destruction.
For almost ten years Osama Bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had eluded the combined efforts of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence organizations. Though he never faded from memory, most people had understandably begun to wonder if he would ever be caught, if justice would forever be denied.
Then, on Sunday night, May 1st, President Obama announced a successful intelligence operation that ended with the death of Bin Laden. The President delivered the announcement with cultured elegance. It is difficult to imagine the emotions he must have been feeling. There appeared to have been excitement in his eyes—resulting as much from the magnitude and impact of his speech as from any possible joy or satisfaction. Obama pronounced a verdict of justice with sedate solemnity, and his words were filled with gravitas as he reaffirmed the perilous milieu of terror that still grips our world. Through it all, Obama was profoundly presidential and resolutely restrained.
Contrast the President’s demeanor with the throngs that gathered outside the White House, in New York City and elsewhere—chanting masses that seem so eerily similar to the cheering crowds of 9/11. It is tempting to dismiss this reaction as Schadenfreude. The truth is more sinister and therefore more difficult to correct.
Certainly there is a mix of emotions welling from within, most uniquely from within the hearts of those who have lost family and friends to the violence of al-Qaeda. From those whose loved ones have been ripped from life, we expect to find relief, gratitude, closure, perhaps even some sense of peace. No one can sit in judgment on how any individual who has suffered such tragedy should feel or react. Indeed, there probably is no “should”.
At the same time, a desire for understanding and compassion must not deter anyone from probing deeper questions of response. Specifically, what is an appropriate collective reaction when a perpetrator of mass violence ends up the prey of violence, himself? There is simply no triumph or honor in the ability to kill. That was what Bin Laden stood for; it cannot define us, also. There is something terribly obscene about watching people celebrate any death, even the demise of Osama Bin Laden.
Whether in the Middle East or in the United States, such assemblies demonstrate a depraved indifference to life and exhibit a duplicity that is beyond the pale of reason. If all human life is of value, then every human life is of value. For believers there is also a religious component. After all, even the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world are created in the image of God. Although they betray that image by acts of violence, we also betray that image--and our faith--by celebrating their executions.
In the United States today, perhaps in every country, we cry out for leaders, for men and women to serve as examples the rest of us can admire and emulate. It was evident on Sunday that we have at least one politician who understands what it means to lead and to inspire. President Obama did not taunt the enemy in his Sunday address. He spoke with candor about justice, but his words did not evoke revenge.
Public displays of emotion, even those that originate from conflict, are not inherently perverse. Innumerable photos and newsreels abound of citizens from various countries celebrating the end of World War I & World War II. In those pictures we see men and women rejoicing, not because someone has died, but because the specter of violence has ended. They celebrate in the hope that perhaps no one else will have to die by bloodshed. They celebrate a peace that was won with incredible sacrifice.
While that hope certainly surfaces with the death of Bin Laden, the mobs we have seen in the streets of America are not celebrating peace. As the president stated, the fight against terror goes on. No, the mobs are celebrating violence itself, and that kind of rejoicing debases us all. However difficult it may be, we must reach deep within ourselves to embrace the more courageous and truer principles of peace. We must be better than Osama Bin Laden was.
Of the thousands of documents that make up the body of American life, including speeches by great presidents, senators and congressmen, these three stand out. One reason is that these are the people’s documents. They define us collectively, and, not unlike the human eyes, they allow us to peer into the soul—in this case the soul of a nation.
The first document is unchangeable. It is the Declaration of Independence. Singular among our founding documents, it grounds the philosophical principles from which a new nation would be born. The passion and commitment to these principles give rise to the second great document.
The Constitution of the United States establishes the supreme law of the land. Because its authors could not anticipate every vicissitude of American life, the Constitution is constantly being interpreted. In extraordinary situations, to address unforeseen concerns and rights, it also can be amended. In the end, it serves to guarantee that the principles of the Declaration are extended to all.
At first, it may seem absurd to link the third document, the Federal Budget, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To begin with, the budget is in constant flux--at minimum from year to year. Even within a single year, it is frequently adjusted as politicians and special interests wrangle over its appropriations. And since most Americans have no real input on expenditures, it hardly seems like one of the people’s documents.
However, the budget is the practical application of the principles of the other two documents. It determines the priorities that allow (or do not allow) those principles to be lived out and secured in daily life. There is a reason that we use the term “shut down” to refer to an unfunded government. Without the budget, there is no government. Without a government, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are, at best, the dreams of philosophical genius. Precisely for this reason, the Federal Budget, more than any other piece of legislation defines the true soul of the country.
The process of crafting a budget does not just allow us to look into the soul of a people. It also allows to identify and to question the foundations on which priorities are determined. It may be that the world of economics, from the principles of the market economy to the funding of the government is the primary point where the Good News of Jesus Christ intersects modern life. It is certainly the most practical point. Unfortunately, that intersection does not merge into a common path. These days, at least, it leads in the exact opposite direction.
If we take the Gospel seriously, we find ourselves called to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. This Kingdom is not territorial. It is defined by neither a particular political system nor an economic structure. It is a community of shared responsibility and also shared resources. This Kingdom does not benefit one people or group of people over another.
In my last blog I suggested that the current vision of the American dream is incompatible with the Gospel. Human beings will always struggle with tendencies to be self-centered. Yet when major decisions are driven by personal gain, the Gospel call to build the Kingdom goes unheard, and subsequently unfulfilled.
For those who reject any notion of social justice in the Gospel, there is, unfortunately, no possibility of discussion. However, much benefit accrues to those who actually hear the Good News and are willing to examine it. In the parable about vigilant and faithful servants, Jesus speaks about the responsibilities of the servants. Peter asks if the parable is also meant for them. Jesus concludes with the startling statement “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
One might expect that the budget is a document of shared resources benefitting all the people. In fact, much of the budget discussion in Washington is misguided in the extreme. It centers on balancing the budget by cutting resources to the poor. Worse still, is that some in Congress, like Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, couples those cuts with outlandish benefits to the rich.
The despicability of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor should be obvious. I would like to suggest that Ryan and company display a total moral vacuum, and demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the American people by suggesting that this is the way for everyone to share in reducing the deficit. What Ryan’s proposals do is take the United States of America, still the richest country in the world, and swell the ranks of America’s poor while expanding the wealth of the super rich. In the process the middle class simply evaporates.
The Paul Ryan types have probably never listened to the teaching of Jesus nor understood Gospel values. Still, it is not just the Gospel call to build the kingdom that is at odds with many of today’s budget proposals. History, also, is being ignored. While people have always balked at paying excessive taxes, most did not object to paying their fair share. The rallying cry of the American revolution was not “No taxation”. It was “No taxation without representation”—a significant difference. The idea that taxes are evil in and of themselves, and that the larger populace is not responsible for the poor must have arisen from the corrupted American dream that centers only on the individual and the self. Sadly, that is the dream adopted by many a Tea Party activist.
If the Federal Budget is to remain in place alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it must again become the people’s document. For that to happen, the people must rediscover the communal values that made America such a great nation, and then elect representatives who possess those same values.
The budget reflects the soul of the nation. What soul will we project?
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.
There is much to bemoan in the current U.S. economy, as well as that in other parts of the globe. As a result, pundits from across the spectrum are analyzing this past Tuesday's election, spinning the outcome to support their own biased perspectives. That is not what I intend, although I would suggest that the U.S. election was more about economics and unemployment, than anything else. The Tea Party, of course, believes the election was about economics AND the "anything else"--particularly their desire, nay, their demand that they be allowed to pursue their individual passions and the rest of the country be damned. It is precisely here that the Tea Party runs smack against the values of the Gospel.
For months the American public has been subjected to Tea Party activists who have espoused a philosophy of government and economics that has gone largely unchallenged in principle. Those who have opposed the Tea Party have done so primarily by focusing on policy and arguing about the value of the stimulus bill, the financial and health care reforms, etc. While acknowledging the dismal employment statistics, they have suggested that things would be worse without some of the emergency legislation passed by Congress. But there are deeper issues at work in the country, issues that go to the heart of the Gospel, and this is where I believe the Tea Party must be challenged.
We frequently hear activists speak of smaller government, using phrases such as "keeping the government out of our pockets." A very careful analysis of the language and issues of the Tea Party unveils a thinly disguised self-centeredness that demonstrates no concern whatsoever for others. In reality, it is simply another incarnation of the "me" mentality, but from a different generation. They want to get everything out of life and keep it for themselves. The hubris of this approach was on display during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The same people who were decrying government spending and regulation of industry were demanding more and faster federal response, not to mention their demand for federal dollars and prosecution of the responsible parties. I guess that when your world revolves only around yourself, you don't need to be rational or consistent.
It has been a long time since politicians have spoken of the common good--or at least a long time since using that specific language. Even President Obama, with all the hope of a new future that he brought to national politics, does not use the term. I realize that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Scriptures. How else could anyone preach the absurdity of literalism! Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the concept of the common good, so it is baffling how the core of the Tea Party movement, those Christians who claim religious superiority over others, can dismiss with such apparent ease everything that Jesus stands for.
Take, for example, the miracle of the loaves and fish. A quick side note: this is the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels, so it is uniquely significant. Whatever explanation one offers for this miracle, it is a demonstration of sharing with and caring for those in need. When Jesus told the disciples to give food to the multitude, they objected. In a phenomenally prescient expression of Tea Party politics, they protested against spending their own money to feed the others--those people who did not have the foresight to bring their own food! Sounds like a page out of Sarah Palin's, and by extension, the Tea Party's handbook. The problem is that their handbook is not the Gospel.
It has become practically a national sport to attack any idea that sounds "socialist" such as the redistribution of wealth. Of course, that is pure ignorance and exactly what the Tea Party preys upon. Pity the poor Christians who do not recognize the socialism in the words of Jesus, or the redistribution of wealth in the miracle of the loaves and fish. In this miracle, with just a few loaves and fish, Jesus demonstrated what happens when people do not think only of themselves or put themselves first. Not only did everyone eat their fill, but there was food left over.
For the record, Jesus did not preach that we should take as much as we can from this world and everyone else be damned. This kind of self-entered individualism inevitably leads to division and a sense of superiority or disdain. It also leads to a misguided independence. Sadly, though, like cholera it is highly contagious and possesses the ability to infect an entire nation. The Tea Party are among those people who believe that America is the best in everything and does not need anyone else. As much as I love my country, this is delusional. We certainly have much to offer the rest of the world, but then we also have much to learn from the rest of the world.
The Tea Party takes its name from the 1773 revolutionary protest in Boston when colonists threw English tea into the harbor. Instead of tossing it overboard, it seems that today's tea party has been drinking the stuff. The story of the loaves and fish does not tell us what Jesus gave the people to drink, but it's a good guess it was not tea!