Blog

Reimagining the Church in Response to Pope Francis’ Way of Synodality

One of the good things about this continuing “covid-moment” has been time to read and think with others via zoom groups. For me this has involved several groups of older Catholic guys, though some might prefer a “former Catholic” designation, and one of the groups is involved with a larger synodal process involving women, the young, and others who are typically marginalized. While each of these groups has its own rhythm and focus, they share a common concern to reappropriate basic Christian beliefs and to re-imagine Catholic structures and practices.

Said differently, while only recently responding explicitly to Pope Francis’ call for a Church-wide synodal process, these zoom groups have actually been engaged in that process for some time. One group has read and discussed Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream which gives, I believe, the best short explanation of what synodality is and demands of us.

What I’m attempting to write below are my take-aways from these zoom experiences. I hope that it might contribute to the further development of “the way of synodality” for both church and world. Since this essay will be longish, readers should feel free to scan and skip.


For anyone interested, this writing continues the reflections of two previous postings on this blog. The most recent is an introduction to Pope Francis’ Let Us Dream which gives my understanding of what Francis means by “the way of synodality.” A few months earlier I had posted an essay on my understanding of “Being (Roman) Catholic.”


First, a brief autobiographical note. I’ve also been using this covid moment to clean out files from courses I’ve taught over the years as well as lectures I’ve given to a variety of audiences. I’m amazed at how much concern for reform of the Catholic Church has been central to my teaching and lectures over many years. No surprise, I suppose, since I did both my theological studies and my doctoral work in philosophy of religion in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Perhaps “reverberations” is a better word than “aftermath”. For the entire world of religious thought and practice was deeply affected by Vatican II’s call for reform of Roman Catholicism – a call which led to major changes in relations between Christian churches (i.e., ecumenism) and between the world’s religions (i.e., interfaith dialogue and collaboration). My present commitment to Francis’ “way of synodality” is simply the latest chapter in that half-century of concern for the transformation not only of Roman Catholicism, but also of relations between all religions and the relationship of these religions to the culture and politics of their regions.


I shall be using numbered sections to identify major elements of my own “reimagined Catholicism.” Yet with awareness that these sections inevitably overlap and repeat ideas found in other sections. There is, in other words, no specific sequencing of these numbered sections.

1. We must work for A MORE INCLUSIVE CHURCH. That has been a theme in every discussion I’ve participated in. And in all my courses and lectures. It’s summarized in an old tag line about “Catholic means here comes everyone” — a reference to the immigrant church in the US with Italians and Germans, Irish and Poles, as well as the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, and so on. Yet that tag line took on far greater meaning at Vatican II when the Old Lady shook herself from a centuries-long slumber and determined to become far more catholic, far more a church of everyone.

For some reason a funny story from the 60s comes to mind. It’s about a beggar and the then notoriously conservative Cardinal MacIntyre of Los Angeles. His eminence was presiding at the Cathedral when people began to hear bells moving up the central aisle. Turns out it was a well-known street guy who wore bells on his ragged garments. He headed directly to the Cardinal seated up front. Holding a fig newton in his rough hand, he offered it to the Cardinal saying “peace brother”. That’s all I remember of this perhaps mythic story. Not sure how it turned out. Yet it comes now to my mind as a wonderfully ironic metaphor for catholic inclusiveness. I have little doubt that in an analogous situation, Pope Francis would have accepted the cookie, invited the beggar to sit, and offered him communion with no questions asked. Of course that’s my myth.

The reality is that we need to imagine a church that includes the poor as well as the wealthy, the gay as well as the straight, the black and brown, yellow and white. And, of course, women as well as men.

As I imagine it, this inclusiveness is not just letting folks in the door, but urging all to active participation – in worship and communion, speaking and listening, leading and following. Perhaps like that Gospel parable about the master sending his servants into the streets to invite everyone to the feast when the special guests have failed to come.

One participant in my zoom groups imagined a church experienced as circular rather than a hierarchical pyramid. I agree with the image of an inclusive circle, but also (see below) think there is need for some sort of hierarchy. It’s both-and rather than either-or.

2. We must work for A FURTHER RENEWAL OF WORSHIP in our church. I say “further” renewal since we experienced a major, but initial renewal in the years after Vatican II (in the 60s and 70s). And that initial renewal was both welcome and disturbing. We turned the altar around, built semi-circular churches, largely did away with communion rails separating presider and people, and encouraged communion under both species with lay folk as communion ministers. All good starts in my view. Yet, again in my view, we lost some of the sense of sacrality, the special smells and bells associated with the old churches and Latin masses. In emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist, we effectively lost much of the devotional life which had characterized pre-Vatican II prayer and worship – things like novenas, adoration, and the rosary (even if Joe still carries one in his pocket and I often mumble the words while falling off to sleep). We’ve also lost people in our church communities, both folks who were at a loss without the older forms of sacrality and those who felt that things hadn’t gone far enough in terms of lay involvement, especially the leadership of women and more regular lay preaching.

I am not sure how we best imagine further renewal. I am convinced that worship is a fundamental human need and aspiration. Yet I also know we have a long way to go in developing forms of worship that will meet that need for the many, not just for the few. Better forms of music and song. Better leadership in presiding and preaching.

Clearly we need women clergy (eventually bishops and popes), but Francis is right in arguing that the deeper problem is clericalism itself, a problem which will not be solved by ordaining women and married folks. Evidence for this failure can be found in the still-pervasive clericalism in all those churches which already ordain women and the married.

My one suggestion would be that we imagine the sacraments as different forms of ministry and ordination. So that we would have an order for those (women or men) who are confessors – those who are good at confession and spiritual direction. And an order for liturgical presiders. Another for preachers. Another for those who care for the sick and bury the dead. Said differently, we do need trained clerical leadership in many dimensions of the church’s sacramental life. But we need to work against clericalism, against the reification of a clerical caste. This is, of course, only one suggestion, and perhaps not a good one. We will need a long period of trial and error, with great tolerance and love for those who do not find new developments adequate or who resist them tooth and nail.

Yet, as another participant said, the Eucharist must remain the center of Catholic life whatever forms and structures develop.

3. So too with ECUMENISM AND INTERFAITH COOPERATION.

There is so much we can learn from the others in terms of their experience with worship and leadership.

The spread of Buddhist forms of meditation and mantra among many Christians is but one example of such learning. So too, I suspect, the development of a great variety of musical forms among other Christians, perhaps especially among evangelicals.

I remember during my years of teaching how many students (Catholic and other Christians) sought out the “rock liturgies” of some of the area’s mega-churches. They seemed to find there a kind of fellowship lacking in more traditional churches. I never agreed since I much preferred (and still do) the more monastic solemnity of chant and the magnificent polyphony of Orthodox churches. Yet many of my students did find solace and hope in these more hyped evangelical liturgies.

In the end, though, I wonder why we need to sanctify only one form of worship? I suspect it’s because of the clerical need for control. Yet the Catholic history of different forms of spirituality and worship associated with different religious orders (Benedictine and Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit) and with different rites (Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) gives evidence of legitimately different forms within the one “catholic” whole. Why not more of the same today?

We Catholics can also learn from Hindus and Jews, from Muslims and Indigenous Peoples. And not just with regard to worship. We can learn to collaborate for justice in our global community. Pope Francis has clearly made outreach to and collaboration with Muslims utterly central to his mission. Probably because that is the central issue facing Europe today. Perhaps for those of us in the US such outreach and collaboration is especially needed not just with Jews and Muslims, but with our Native Peoples.

I have colleagues who regularly led Holy Week trips to New Mexico to witness the interweaving of Native and Catholic ceremonies among the Navajo and Pueblo peoples there. I regularly had students read Black Elk Speaks in my “intro to religion” course. Always supplementing the book’s account with the fact that Black Elk himself (after the battle of Wounded Knee where the book effectively ends) became a Catholic catechist among his people for the many years of his later life. A friend, a Lakota Franciscan Sister, wrote a short “Retreat With Black Elk” for use not only by her fellow indigenous Catholics, but by all of us. And it is for me a great consolation to know that Black Elk’s cause for canonization is presently being encouraged by Francis himself.

4. And then there is the difficult matter of DOCTRINAL AUTHORITY AND DEVELOPMENT.

There are many among so-called liberals who want to de-emphasize doctrine as too left-brained (or is it right?), while the self-described orthodox fight mightily to preserve traditional teachings and the authoritative voice of the hierarchy in matters of both faith and morals.

Such “conservatism” may be noble, but it is a lost cause, though always recurring. There is simply too much compelling evidence that Christian and Catholic doctrine has always undergone significant change and development, even reversals and contradictions. Certainly the inevitable ordination of women will contradict JP II’s causa finita. To say nothing of the pervasive Catholic rejection of teachings about artificial birth control, pre-marital sex, and divorce-and-remarriage.

Yet while the opposing “liberalism” is also often noble, it is also terribly simplistic. Something akin to Robert Frost’s description of poets writing free verse without ever learning traditional techniques: it’s like trying to learn tennis with the net down and no lines. They are angelic romantics, hoping for all in terms of feeling and intuition while cutting off their heads.

It is clear that doctrines develop and change, and even reverse themselves. Capital punishment and justified warfare were accepted Catholic teaching for millennia. But no more. No more. Though it not clear what has replaced them. And that fact, of course, indicates the need for forms of authority to ride herd on an always burgeoning conflict of opinions.

Put more bluntly, we need bishops as guardians of tradition and regulators of debate. We may disagree with them in conscience or on good theological grounds (for we also need the theologians, saints, and mystics to guide us). But without such care for both tradition and development, the center cannot hold. Indeed, there is no center to hold. Not only no Catholicism, but no Christianity at all. Just an endless proliferation of sects and idiosyncrasies. And the same is true for the other great religious traditions with their different forms of authority and ways of judging fidelity.

For us, of course, the cornerstone and criterion for such judgments is Jesus. But Jesus is known only through the Gospels which themselves are documents written and made canonical by the authority of the early church. And they have been interpreted and handed on by the creeds of various councils and by the witness of saints and the writings of mystics, and of course not only by the great theologians (female as well as male) but also by movements of popular piety through the centuries, such as the great upswelling of Marian devotions throughout the 19th Century.

I believe that Pope Francis has provided us with the best contemporary way towards integrating tradition and change – the way of synodality. He’s very clear that synodality is NOT the same as parliamentary democracy. It’s not a matter of popular vote or some such. Rather it is a way for Catholics and other Christians to encounter each other, listening above all, in an effort to understand the meaning of fidelity to Jesus in our times and our different situations.

In this “way of synodality,” we will need the refereeing or governing authority of the Bishops and the Pope. But that governing role will only work when they too have really engaged in the “here comes everyone” process of synodality, have really listened and discerned with the rest of us.

5. Next, there is the crucial matter of INTEGRATING WORDS WITH ACTION in efforts to EMBODY THE KINGDOM which God is always-already nurturing among us.

One of the zoom participants was deeply concerned that this whole synodal business would be just more blah, blah, blah. All talk and no significant action. I very much agree, perhaps especially because I am a talker and he is an admirable man of concrete action for the immigrant and the poor.

That’s why we need to follow Francis “to the margins” of our societies (and to the poor and suffering parts of our own selves). As he says, we must touch and be touched by human suffering. We must listen and learn at the margins – not only from human suffering, but especially from the popular movements of protest and transformation which are emerging there.

Contra Augustine, at least to some extent, the reign of God’s Spirit is to be experienced less in the church than in the world, or at least as much in the world as in the church. Thus, again with Francis, the churches must move into the streets, into the mud and mess of our world. Our synodality must not only open church doors to include those on the margins, but must open doors into that world. Even as worship/eucharist remains central. It’s once again a both-and.

6. Another zoom participant urged a REVISIONING OF PARISHES so that they are composed of many SMALL COMMUNITIES WITHIN THE UNITY OF A LARGER PARISH.

His intention is NOT to encourage enclaves of withdrawal within the larger parish; rather it is to engender a revitalization of faith within the larger parish by means of revitalization in the smaller groups. Even more, it should enable the members of both the smaller communities and the larger parish to move with faith and courage into the world via the work and other public engagements of individuals and families in the parish.

Two of my zoom groups are composed entirely of present and former Marianists (members of the Society of Mary). The vision of the Founder of that religious order (Blessed William Joseph Chaminade) was to re-Christianize French society after the secularism enforced by the Revolution by means of “sodalities” or small communities of lay folks (women and men) who lived and worked in various sectors of modern/secular society. Bringing the Reign of God’s Spirit, in other words, into post-revolutionary France less through a recovery of traditional parish structures than through the presence of such disciples (or evangelizers or witnesses) within the many different institutional sectors of society. It is that vision that has led Marianists today to leadership roles in the “small Christian community movement” for the revitalization of parishes and the evangelization of the world.

7. There are many more aspects of a re-imagined Catholicism that should be noted. Yet the final question I wish to raise here concerns whether all such re-imagining of the Church is mere fantasy, something totally unrealistic in view of the deep “liberal-conservative” polarization within the Catholic and other Christian churches in this country, and within all of the great religious traditions. Mere fantasy, especially in light of what seems subtle but strong resistance to serious participation in the synodal way in many dioceses in the US?

The answer, as I see it, is twofold. First, whatever the polarizations and resistances (which are very real), the effort to reimagine church is worth it. Our ideas can be sent directly to the Vatican where they will be received and perhaps heard. Yet even were that not so, it remains an act of fidelity for us, as individuals and groups, to try to discern the movements of the Spirit among us and to embody them in our own practice.

Yet there is a second, deeply ironic reason for hope that such imaginative action is not a waste of time and energy. I refer to the major crises we humans are now facing and will continue to have to face – whether we want to or not – for the foreseeable future. From Covid to climate change, with the great migration of peoples and the consequent violence and warfare they will entail. We, in the churches and in the world, will be forced by tragedy and suffering, to reimagine the nature of our institutions and beliefs.

Yes, the most immediate response to such crises is a resort to tyranny – from Trump and Putin to Hindu (and even Buddhist) nationalists, and so on. And that continually recurring response will cause much death, many “holocausts” large and small. Yet I am certain that the spirit of the Gospel – and, I believe, the meaning of Torah and Quran, of Hindu and Buddhist texts, of Confucianism and the Tao, as well as the great streams of humanism which run, in different ways, throughout world history – I believe that these great currents of meaning cannot long endure the iron cages of tyranny and ideology.

That, at any rate, is my hope.

A Brief Introduction to Pope Francis’ “Let Us Dream”

For this writing I’m developing notes from a presentation I gave about Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream. The response of the audience, a study-group a local Methodist church, and the discussion that followed, are what lead me to write this introduction. It’s longer than my typical posting, but still a brief introduction to the 150-page book.

I had been asked to talk about “Healing Our Polarizations” and I decided to focus just on this book. It provides an important pathway or (as Jesuits say) a “way of proceeding” towards that healing. Yet I’m sure Francis would be the first to note that his Path to a Better Future (the book’s subtitle) is but one of many such efforts. For today, thankfully, many are also working towards that healing, both by writing and by more immediate and practical efforts.

I focus on Francis not just because he is the Pope and I am Catholic, but because he is at present one of the world’s most important spiritual leaders. He is, I often think, one very wise dude, a kind of Jesuit “spiritual director” for our world. He speaks to people of different faiths and different social positions – to business folks as much as religious people, to politicians and the poor, to the wealthy and the colonized.

In 2020 Francis wrote a major encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, calling all people to recover a sense of social friendship and trust. (I have written previously on this site about that encyclical.) Yet it was during the subsequent Covid lock-down that this more popular follow-up to the encyclical was conceived and written – in separate English and Spanish editions – precisely as a call to both personal and cultural transformation during this “Covid Moment.” In the book’s “Postscript,” co-writer and papal biographer Austen Iverleigh describes the email-exchanges between he and Francis that led to publication. He also gives an excellent review of the book’s key themes.

Yet no summary of the book’s rich content is possible because of its very personal and somewhat rambling style. As Iverleigh says, “As so often with Francis, the ideas came as flashes of intuition” (141). In what follows, I simply wish to give an outline which evokes Let Us Dream’s rich content. Above all I hope to invite the reader to take up the book itself. I also want to suggest that it needs to be read slowly. Perhaps in prayerful quiet. And in discussion with others.

***

Lest it get lost in what follows, let me note three themes which are central to this book – themes found in all of Francis’ writing and embodied in the witness of his life:

1) his critique of our dominant economic system as a “throwaway economy” (that throws people to the margins), an economy of profits over people;

2) his “option for the poor,” calling his church and others into the streets, seeing from the margins, opening ourselves to human suffering, and learning from popular movements for change;

3) his continual call for both personal and social transformation.

***

The book’s three chapters follow the “see-judge-act” model familiar in many social movements. I will follow that three-fold development here, with the reminder that Francis’ insights and arguments are typically repeated in different ways in each of these chapters.

***

Francis first challenges us to really SEE the multiple crises we face – from Covid to climate change to a very violent world and a reigning economic/cultural system which marginalizes so many and leaves others uprooted and without spiritual grounding. He also challenges us to SEE the many ways we avoid seeing: our various forms of indifference and cynicism, our sense of paralysis, feeling overwhelmed and retreating to privacy or taking up simplistic (and polarizing) ideologies. He urges us (not just Christians) to sit together and talk in an attempt to discern the “spirits” moving within us – our many forms of denial as well as the many forms of compassion still moving within and among us.

His opening lines emphasize that ours is a “time as a reckoning” when “categories and ways of thinking get shaken up; priorities and lifestyles are challenged” (1). He further describes the present as “a time of trial” akin to what the Bible describes as “passing through the fire.” These times force us to choose, and “in making your choice you reveal your heart” (1).

Francis frequently speaks of ours as a “covid moment.” At one point (39-43) he describes three major and transformative “covid moments” in his own life. Yet he also warns against focusing only on the pandemic and assuming that after this everything will return to “normal” and we’ll hardly have to change anything. Rather, he challenges us to see with equal apprehension the multiple and overlapping crises we face.

“Think, for example, of the wars scattered across different parts of the world; of the production and trade of weapons; of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity; of climate change” (4-5). (That latter and larger crisis was the focus of his great 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’.) “Just look at the figures, what a nation spends on weapons, and your blood runs cold. Then compare those figures with UNICEF’s statistics on how many children lack schooling and go to bed hungry…. In the first four months of this year, 3.7 million people died of hunger. And how many have died from war? Arms spending destroys humanity. It is a very serious coronavirus, but because its victims are hidden from us we don’t talk about it” (4).

Again, he challenges us to recognize the obvious and more subtle ways by which we fail to face these multiple crises. Perhaps better said, by which we refuse to see them. For many will just shrug, saying what can I do anyway, it’s all too overwhelming. Others will take the path of “functional retreat” that Francis sees playing out in the parable of the Good Samaritan – passing by because I have a job to do, and I can’t afford to have my way of living disturbed. While others, motivated by deep fear as much as anger, will turn to passionate forms of belief in “our way” of thinking and acting. Ideologies which further polarize hearts and minds. “Right now,” Francis says at one point, “I see a lot of digging in” (44). He regularly emphasizes such refusals throughout the book since recognition of them is where our transformation, personal and social, must begin.

Finally, Francis argues, “You must go to the edges of existence if you want to SEE the world as it really is” (11). Go to the marginal areas of the world, of our nation, of our hometown, of our own selves. Why? For two reasons (at least). First because an exposure to suffering – really touching the wounds of our world – can and should deepen our sense of compassion and of active response. Too often, he suggests, we see only quick pictures of suffering in news reports. It remains distant and abstract. We need to really be in touch with the suffering parts of our humanity which we find “on the margins.” We need the kind of seeing involved in touching and being touched.

Yet, secondly, we also need to go to the actual margins of our societies because there, he argues, among the poor and the least, perhaps especially among the young, we will find a resurgence of hope in popular movements for different ways of structuring our societies. (Think, for example, of BLM and Me-2, and of the many popular movements, some representing indigenous peoples, demanding greater change to respond to our climate crisis.)

***

As we see, we must then also JUDGE OR DISCERN. We must learn to discern among the various currents of ideas and feelings (passions) moving within each of us and in our larger culture and world. To discern among the spirits (evil and good) moving us.

For Francis, of course, we must above all discern how the Spirit of God is moving us. “It’s like God says to Isaiah: come let us talk this over” (Is. I:18-20). Which I take to mean both let us talk with God about this, and let’s let God move us to talk with each other. That’s my own sense of SHE WHO IS or the Great Mother. SHE provides counsel to our discernments and urges her children to seek counsel together. “Come let us talk this over.” Let us have the courage to dream together about our common human future.

For Francis, this judging process is simultaneously both individual and communal. You can’t have one without the other.

We clearly must discern the tendencies of our own hearts. Yet for such discernment, he immediately notes, we need “a robust set of criteria to guide us” (51). Jesus gave us just such criteria when he summarized “the grammar of the Kingdom of God” in those Beatitudes which shake our categories and challenge our lifestyles (52). These gospel criteria, Francis then says (52-4), have been developed over centuries by Catholic Social Teaching about solidarity and the common good.

Of course, for discernment we also need “a healthy capacity for silent reflection [and] places of refuge from the tyranny of the urgent (52). Yet the need for criteria even in such private reflection further illustrates how much we need community – talking together, at every level, from small groups to church bodies to professional groups and political groups – all seeking to discern the common good or our country and world. For our criteria come to us from the larger communities of thought and practice within which we live and work. For Catholics and other Christians, such criteria come to us, as noted, from Jesus and the tradition of Christian social thought. Equally robust criteria for discernment come from other religious communities, from humanist philosophies, and from the mission statements and practices of many professions and corporations.

Yet there are also many pernicious criteria for judgement which pervade our world and lead us to refuse to see. Business, after all, is business; the market must remain free; religion must stay out of politics; we all have our individual right to do and see as we please; and so on.

The Pope’s own primary way of enabling such common discernment is the “synodal process” he has called the entire Catholic church to undertake. A process of “coming together” as people of God which officially began in each Catholic diocese throughout the world at Mass on Oct. 11 of this year. In Let Us Dream (81-93), he provides an extended discussion of the meaning of synods and of recent Catholic synods (especially the Synod of Amazonia in October of 2019). There he also explains the guidelines and goals for this unique worldwide synodal process. His words also make it clear, at least to me, that a synodal mentality is much-needed not only in religious groups, but in all kinds of secular groups whatever names they may give to their “sitting together.”

***

Francis has been criticized (often justly in my view, yet often narrowly and ideologically) for his failures to promote the role of women in all such processes of governance and discernment. Yet he stresses that “A sign of hope in this crisis is the leading role of women” (62). In subsequent pages (62-68) he provides a significant discussion of the role of women in society and then in the church. He talks about his recent appointments of women to key roles in the Vatican. He affirms the real leadership roles that so many women already play in churches and church groups throughout the world. Then argues the controversial position that the real problem in the church is not patriarchy but clericalism – the ingrained belief that clerics alone (and thus men alone in Catholicism) must lead the church. We need, he urges, to transform our churches — including, I add, Protestant and Orthodox churches which also have a major problem with clerical castes — so that many lay women and men will officially and actually be leaders in the Church. Speaking of his recent Vatican appointments, he says he chose these women “because I believe women in general are much better administrators than men” (67).

Some may see his whole discussion of clericalism, and this particular line about women’s administrative abilities, as little more than a sop thrown to his critics. I personally find what he says “right on” even as I continue to support women’s ordination to specific clerical roles in the Catholic church, not only presiding and preaching at worship, but baptizing and confirming, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead, and so on. I think of these as separate ordinations for crucial ministries, not as the entrance of women into a clerical caste. But I do support the ordination of women to the office of bishop in Catholicism.

***

Francis’ third chapter challenges us to ACT on the basis of what we have seen and judged. On first beginning this chapter I had expected to find a series of proposals for action. Nor does Francis avoid broad proposals for action here and in previous chapters. Proposals that, for instance, we work to change our agricultural systems in response to world hunger. Or, more broadly, that we must transform our entire global, “neo-liberal” economic system in response to poverty and inequality. And that we must then change political systems and vastly reduce the militarization of our economies and international relations. (Francis, I would add, continually makes such proposals in his messages, for instance in a recent “tweetstorm” that gave a long list of much-needed structural changes.)

Above all he regularly argues that we get out of the way and allow poor countries to develop their own economies and poor peoples’ movements to transform our societies. Indeed he ends this third chapter with some very good pages (128-32) on the systemic transformations demanded by such movements, what he and they call “the three L’s” of Land, Lodging, and Labor. For people everywhere need to recover the use of their own land and its resources. They need good, secure housing and good, dignified work.

Such proposals will be dismissed as typical socialist idealism. Or as religious entanglement in politics. Neither is true. They are visionary proposals, not specific policy or political programs. Yet they call us, together, to find specific policies and programs in response to our multiple crises. Above all to let people themselves, locally and nationally, find such policies and programs by “sitting together.”

Yet while the final chapter (and the entire book) contains many such “proposals,” the fundamental ACT Francis calls for throughout his final chapter is action to restore our sense of being a people, in every country and region. This, he argues, is the foundational form of action without which all specific proposals will again turn into polarized positions. We must, he says, recover the sense tradition and memory whereby each national and regional group knows itself to be a people. We must recover a deeper sense of “being in this together” than one finds and feels in simply being a society, an economy, or a national state. For “Without the ‘we’ of a people, of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests, life quickly fractures and becomes violent, a battle for supremacy between factions and interests…. [Yet, he adds] We are not there yet. This crisis has called forth the sense that we need each other, that the people still exists” (46).

“A people is not the same as a country, a nation, or a state, important though these entities are” (100). Rather, a “people draws on and expresses many sources: historic, linguistic, cultural (especially in music and dance), but above all a collective wisdom and memory. A people is held together by that memory, treasured in history, custom, rites (religious or not), and other bonds that transcend the purely transactional and rational. At the beginning of the story of every people is a quest for dignity and freedom, a history of solidarity and struggle” (96-7). This was true for the people of ancient Israel, “the archetype of what we are discussing” (103). And equally true “For the nations of the American continent [where] it was the struggle for independence” that gave and still gives them a sense of being a people (97). True for our United States and his Argentina, for Mexico and Canada and so on.

Throughout his final chapter, Francis also distinguishes this sense of being a people not just from the state and nation, but from the reigning neoliberal sense of the nation/state as a free collaboration of interests (108-17) which has increasingly destroyed the more fundamental reality of being a people. He also distinguishes the reality of a people from contemporary nationalist or “populist” movements which co-opt the idea of a people even as they destroy its reality (117-19).

He believes and hopes that times of crisis “reveal not just popular feeling but the feeling of a people, [of] its ‘soul’…. It may seem strange to say it [he adds], but it’s true: the people has a soul. And because we can speak of the soul of a people, we can speak of a way of viewing the world, an awareness. Such an awareness is the result not of an economic system or political theory but of a personality shaped in key moments of a people’s history. These milestones have imprinted on the people a powerful sense of solidarity, of justice, and of the importance of labor” (101). (Think, for instance, of the many historic landmarks by which we in the US identify and celebrate our identity as a people.)

Approached from another angle, “To speak of a people is to appeal to unity in diversity: e pluribus unum” (102). This was true for the 12 tribes of ancient Israel and remains tenuously true today for the 50 of our United States. And, of course, true for the diverse regional groups (even language groups or dialects) of so many contemporary countries in Europe and Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Specifically, I must add (because of our war there), it’s true for the people of Viet Nam. Their recent history has seen violent divisions and now endures the forced unity of communism. Yet the soul of the Vietnamese people, at home and in diaspora, still hungers for a more real unity of its many parts.

Not surprisingly, Francis begins this third chapter by stressing that “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken out of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people” (97). Later, in a remarkable historical reflection on the meaning of “People of God” (103-07), Francis develops this idea.

“The dignity of a people—even the poorest, most wretched, enslaved people—comes from God’s closeness. It is God’s love and closeness that confer dignity, and always raise up a people, offering it a horizon of hope” (103).
This was true for the people of Israel and “Jesus is a child of the Jewish people’s history of grace, of promise, of redemption. His is a story of a people seeking liberation, conscious of its dignity because God has appeared and come close and walked with them. Jesus comes to restore Israel to the remembrance of God’s closeness, to return to the people the dignity of the promise…. Jesus restores dignity to the people in acts and words that perform God’s closeness” (104).

“To be Christian, then, is to know that we are part of a people, a people expressed in different nations and cultures yet which transcends all boundaries of race and language. The People of God is a community within the broader community of a nation, serving the nation, helping to shape that nation’s self-understanding, while respecting the role played by other religious and cultural institutions. But if the Church has a particular role to play at times of crisis, it is precisely to remind the people of its soul, of its need to respect the common good. This is what Jesus did: He came to strengthen and deepen the bonds of belonging—of the people to God and to each other” (104-5).

Said differently, the Christian churches must not only recover their sense of being God’s people, but must serve the larger national culture within which they live by enabling it to recover its soul, its historic sense of being a people, its feeling of being in this together, in solidarity for the common good.

In a long section at the end of the chapter (118-32), Francis returns to his conviction that we must go to the margins of our societies, especially to meet and learn from the popular movements which have arisen there. His long personal experience (in the barrios of Buenos Aires and since) leads to this conviction that through such movements we too may recover a sense of what it means to be a people. For there he finds evidence of the recovery and emergence of “peoples” rising against the more dominant forces of liberal democracy and nationalist populisms. Earlier in the book (25) he had even made specific reference to the world-wide response to the murder of George Floyd, a response exemplifying the popular movements in which he puts such hope

Francis concludes this third chapter with a final call to action: “By making the restoration of our peoples’ dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions. To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future” (132-33, emphasis mine).

***

Of course, many will find this book and the entirety of Francis’ papacy to be little more than a totally unrealistic dream. I will admit that I am also tempted, as I read the daily news (with reports of such deep divisions in our politics and culture, of so much deadly violence, endless lawsuits, and mindless political debates), to wonder whether what Francis calls for is an impossible dream. Yet there is also contrary evidence in the news, such as recent suggestions that the pandemic has led a large number of people not to return to their jobs but to seek better, more humane and meaningful work. Or reports from abroad of many popular movements for freedom and equality. And also much much evidence in our cities — in the many movements and systems, often small and little noticed, for service and solidarity.

In the end, I am personally compelled by the overall impact of the book — with its many ideas and arguments and its references to many sources of wisdom and grace, what I’ve previously referred to as its richness of both content and style. Compelled by the urgent truth of its challenge. I hope this may be true as well for most who will take and read.

When Two Or Three Are Gathered… Some Reflections on Prayer

I began trying to write something about prayer more than a month ago. 

I’m continuing now having recently returned from a trip to Europe which included several days of retreat at Stift Goettweig, a Benedictine monastery (Stift) founded in the 11th Century on a mountain overlooking the Danube in Austria.  I assume its name is medieval dialect and means something like (the deliberately ambiguous?) “God’s Way”. 

And after the Jewish High Holy Days of Atonement and New Year, and at the end of Sukkot. Traditional forms of ritual prayer and celebration. 

***

In what follows I give, without any special sequence or order, a number of personal reflections on prayer. In these reflections I’m going to allow myself the latitude to make asides about this and that; tell an anecdote or cite a passage.  And you, dear reader, must allow yourself the similar latitude of skipping around or just deleting.  At the end I indicate that this will be the first in a series of posts on prayer. 

 ***

As always, I invite readers to respond with their thoughts and questions, doubts and beliefs, about prayer.

***

As an opening teaser, I note that while usually connected, prayer and God are not necessarily connected.  I know, for instance, that at least some secular Jewish friends follow the High Holy Days and Passover, mostly at home.  Yet not because these rituals connect us with some G-d, but simply because they are healthy human practices, important communal and family traditions.  And, of course, Buddhist practices of meditation imply no connection with any god.  Only later in Buddhism did the gods arrive in some Buddhist traditions.

Yet I suspect that most Christians who practice Buddhist meditation do so within the horizon of Christian belief in God.  (See subsequently about my prayer to Quan Am, goddess of mercy.)

Then there is this from Pope Francis on 9/21 (from his daily prayer site “Journey With The Pope” — which I highly recommend):

“I would like to reiterate that if we want to preserve fraternity on Earth, we cannot lose sight of Heaven.… Yes, true religiosity consists in adoring God and loving one’s neighbor. And we believers cannot exempt ourselves from these essential religious choices: rather than demonstrating something, we are called to show the paternal presence of the God of heaven through our harmony on earth.”

I also believe that most of us continue in a variety to pray to the old pagan gods.  We as a nation make immense sacrifices at the altar of Mars.

And I hope at some point to reflect on the ways many atheists pray.  

Perhaps we all pray, with or without gods?

***

I have prayed, or tried to, throughout my entire life – even before words came to me.

I’ve long been a student and professor of religious studies and have developed much appreciation for the prayer beliefs and practices of different religious traditions.    

Yet I am also a philosopher trained to habits of criticism as well as appreciation.  For there is much that is phony in religion, and much that is at times very dangerous.  For me that means especially the many forms fundamentalist belief and practice found throughout the world’s religions (though hardly limited to religions). They need to be criticized since they contribute in so many ways to polarizations and violence.

And though I continue to pray, I have my share of doubts and serious questions about prayer.  I suspect that Freud (and Marx, etc.) may have been right about much prayer – simply seeking illusory but much needed comfort or reassurance in tough times.   But then who am I to judge the character of anyone’s prayer?

***

I’m still filled, two weeks after, with my days at Goettweig, so allow me to ramble a bit.  And perhaps go to their excellent website Benedictine Abbey Göttweig – place of encounter (stiftgoettweig.at) for photos that may provide images for fmy words.

I had no “retreat” program. It was just several days of quiet, with walks through the now large monastery’s shaded grounds and gardens.  The weather was clear early fall. I sat for what seemed hours at this or that valley overlook, and spent time reading and scribbling. I made occasional “visits” to one or the other of the monastery’s churches.   One evening I just happened to walk into a sung High Mass in the very large and very baroque cathedral church.  There were trumpets and drums and full choir accompanying the magnificent organ, and up front a good number of monks in choir stalls and at the altar.  I have no idea what the occasion was, but it filled my heart to experience this baroque brilliance with a full congregation of masked and local folk – farmer and business families from surrounding villages, many of whom work the monastery’s fields and forests. 

Did I mention that the food was great; that the monastery not only makes its own beer, but seven different kinds of wine, as well as specialty apricot liqueurs.  The monks, about 60 (with quite a few elderly) are pastors at many area parishes, minister at several prisons, and have an active ministry to youth.  So the beer and wine and other goodies – including the meals at the monastery restaurant – are these days the work of employees from the surrounding towns. 

And all of it – from the food to the quiet to the services and sights – was for me a form of prayer.  Which may have something to do with the constant stream of daytime visitors – mostly hikers and bikers, but many family cars and occasional tour busses.  It’s hilltop grandeur and historic significance make it a natural tourist stop.  Yet  I can’t help but think that some sort of sacred aura (whatever that might mean) nonetheless draws folks there.  Even the many couples and family groups who seem simply to come for the superb restaurant.  The place resonates hospitality.  As it’s website says, it’s a place of encounter.  Not accidentally with several churches, a museum of monastic art, and the cloistered apartments for the monks. An aura of prayer.

One other surprise.  One evening while I was dining on their beautiful terrace restaurant, I noticed noise and loudspeakers on another terrace above.  I wandered up and discovered an electric car show – new electric models from VW and BMW, Porsche and Peugeot, and several Asian carmakers.  One could sign up to drive any one of these on the roads circling the monastery.  And, lo and behold (or LOL), there was the Abbot in his black Benedictine robes wearing a bright red stole and holding a prayer book.  Next to him was someone carrying a holy water bucket and sprinkler.  The announcer was calling for quiet while the Abbot read a prayer of blessing and then walked with the sprinkler blessing both cars and crowd.  (The pervasive cameras were, I’m sure, for newspapers.)  After watching this ritual, I approached the Abbot and told him that Pope Francis would have loved this.  A Laudato Si’ event.  He agreed and also suggested that this was simply one part of the monastery’s ministry of hospitality and prayer.

***

That’s it for now.  Hope to post more on prayer soon enough.  Vaya con Dios.

Purgatory, a Test

Not sure the title makes sense. I’m sending this short piece on purgatory as a test of my efforts to restore a mailing list among those of you who said you wanted to continue to receive my blog postings. (If you get this, but didn’t want to continue, please just let me know.)

And, of course, one way to understand purgatory is that it is a time of testing. Perhaps like a thesis defense, or like a final exam in a very challenging course. Saints get a free pass, but most of us need some final testing.

Belief in purgatory has been laughed off the stage of contemporary Christian consciousness for all sorts of reasons. That it’s medieval Catholic nonsense with no basis in scripture. That God’s grace or mercy saves everyone, no matter what their lives or final state when appearing at the pearly gates. You know, Peter as parking manager rather than passport examiner.

At any rate, I continue to think the idea of purgatory is a good one, even if a medieval invention. There are lots of good (and lots of bad) developments in Christian thought that have no basis in scripture. One is Luther’s sola scriptura, which remains a pretty bad, and at times a very dangerous, idea!

My dad (who by now is well out of purgatory) used to sit at his bedside every night praying the rosary for the “poor souls.” I’m sure he thought of and perhaps spoke to deceased members of his family and friends, perhaps even to enemies. I’m sure he thought he’d be joining them. I too believe that. I’m no saint. Lots of Catholic guilt, but much of it real. Time for a good cleansing after death before I get to the pearly gates. And to talk especially with enemies whom I expect to join there.

I don’t share Dante’s image of purgation by fire. When I try to imagine purgatory (which may not be a good idea), I imagine some process of sorrowful reflection and repentance for all the stupid and sinful stuff I’ve done – the vices and vanities, etc. And for reconciliation with enemies.

Of course, I know rationally that all this talk of afterlife “processes” is confused by our inability to understand what time might mean after we leave this time. But I’ll leave that as a teaser for the philosophically inclined.

For now that’s enough for my test.

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption

As I approach my 80th year, I am much aware of death. Many friends and colleagues have died recently, and I can feel “the sting of death” in my body’s decline. I do hope to live longer and to prosper. Yet most of my friends live with a growing awareness of death. St. Paul claims that, with Jesus’ resurrection, death has lost it’s sting. Wonder if he still thought that as he first felt the bite of the executioner’s axe.

At any rate today is the celebration of Mary’s “dormition” as the Orthodox put it. It concerns death and transformation, body and soul, into a new form of life — “in heaven” we typically say. I am again copying here (with minor edits) a reflection on this feastday which I first published in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s then still extant religion blog .

On August 15, Catholics around the world celebrate “The Assumption of Mary” into heaven. More typically referred to simply as “The Assumption,” to distinguish it from Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” into heaven, the holy day celebrates Catholic teaching that Jesus’s mother, after the course of her natural life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory. There is no formal Catholic teaching about whether Mary, like her son Jesus, actually died. Though I assume that she, like all humanity, really did die.

This belief about Mary’s assumption is a stumbling block for most Protestant Christians. My wife, for instance, is a good Presbyterian. We met in a small and entirely Catholic town in Bavaria while studying the German language. The course ran through Aug. 15, a town holiday because it was a Catholic holy day, Maria Himmelfahrt. For my wife, and probably for most of our fellow students, it was simply a day off from school and occasion for a bit of a joke about the word “himmelfahrt.” We knew it meant “journey to heaven,” but the English resonance of the sound “fahrt” was unavoidable. Beyond that, it has remained for her a matter of indifference in our otherwise ecumenically active marriage.

So for her and many others, I offer (again) the following comments and reflections.

The Scripture readings for the feast begin with the description of the pregnant women in the heavens “clothed with the Sun,” from Revelations 12. They then move to Paul’s discussion of Christ “conquering death” by his resurrection and so becoming “the firstborn of many” (1 Corinthians 15). And finally to the Gospel narrative traditionally referred to as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39) — the young and pregnant Mary’s visit to her older, about-to-give-birth cousin Elizabeth.

Elizabeth greets Mary as “full of grace” and then hears in Mary’s response the poetic canticle still widely referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the first word of the older Latin text). Mary proclaims that her soul glorifies God (“magnificat anima mea Dominum”), who has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the poor and lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

As liturgical readings — as poetry and proclamation for the feast of the Assumption — these texts are rich in suggestion about the meaning of Catholic belief. I am struck above all by how physical, bodily and worldly is their content. Yes, they celebrate a move beyond the present world, beyond death; yet, they do so in remarkably earthly terms. A heavenly woman gives birth in pain, yet stands as sign of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Jesus really dies, but by his resurrection is proclaimed firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin”). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and His work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.

Mary’s story is not about escaping this world, however much Christian teaching and Marian devotion may have been understood in such “spiritualist” terms. Rather it’s about the transformation of the world. And if Jesus by his resurrection is “the firstborn” in this new world, then Mary’s bodily assumption makes her the second-born.

Mary’s Assumption is, in other words, one part of the larger Christian belief about a kingdom that will and does transform this real physical world — where women get pregnant, suffer childbirth, and are so often terribly treated; where the poor are still with us, suffering and oppressed; where the rich and powerful glory in their excess and use terrible brutality to defend their kingdom.

The Assumption is part of that larger, though too easily dismissed, Christian teaching about “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now about belief in a new creation, a new kingdom coming, I must admit that I’m among the first to doubt — to find such ideas hard to accept, even at times fantastical.

As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2021, though a different friend.]  Most of us know death, often close up, and know its terrible finality. Just as we daily witness power and wealth increasing their death grip on our national dreams of equality and justice, to say nothing of the dreams of the vast majority of our world’s population. So I’m often not sure what to make of talk about defeating death and some new world ‘a comin’ — perhaps it is just opium.

What I do know, however, and am called to celebrate, is that Catholic teaching about Mary and Jesus — regardless of what some preachers and even some bishops and popes have made of it — is not about fantastical dreams of someplace else. It’s essentially incarnational — bodily, physical, worldly, human, political. It’s about this world and about the hope for its transformation, in God’s good time (which is both now and to come).

Perhaps hard to believe, but that’s what it’s about. And it challenges many, many of our assumptions.

So let me end with Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and writer. He tells of a moment when, on a street corner in Louisville, where he’d gone for a doctor visit, he had this experience of seeing all the people on the street “shining like the sun.” He says that he wanted to shout to them, call to them to see how they really were “clothed with the sun.” Instead he gave his life to writing about how all of us, in our deeper and more real selves, are indeed “full of grace” and “clothed with the sun,” even in the midst of our daily busy-ness, our greeds and lusts and angers, our wars and crimes.

Pay attention to those moments, glimpses, when we notice ourselves or others “clothed with the sun.” Maybe if we did it more, paid greater attention to such deeper presence, we too would occasionally see a new world ‘a comin’ even now. It might even change some of our assumptions.

Gloom and Doom — Hope and Zoom

We hear much doom and gloom these days about real crises, about violence and distrust and polarization….  I suspect that most of us experience this G&D. It’s is a real and important experience pervasive in the cultural air we breathe daily.  We must pay serious attention to it.    Yet I write mainly to suggest that such G&D risks looming too large in our minds and  spirits.  I write to note that many good things, big and small, are also very real, and to urge that appreciation and admiration of such real goods needs to occupy a greater part of our attention. 

That’s it.  If the topic interests you, please read on, or just delete and think about hope and gloom in your own way. 

****

I have used “zoom” in my title because much of what follows reflects on how zooming has become part of our way of living since the pandemic.  And I suspect there are many zoom groups which exemplify such attention to the good.  My own experience of many zoom sessions really helps to counterbalance my experiences of gloom by enlarging my sense of reality.

So, doom yes, but hope as well — whether via zooms or other forms of communication and community. My mentor Lynch says that hope is impossible without help.

I suspect there are hundreds of thousands of zoom groups operating in this country which primarily spread gloom and doom.  Same with twitter accounts, with gossip groups, and even church services (!) spreading fear and despair.

But I hope there are at least as many hundreds of thousands of zoom groups (and other media, including most church services) which spread hope and prudence and wisdom….

My numbers may be way off, but hope you get the point.

****

About G&D

Not much for me to say here since I assume that we all have such experiences and hear such prognostications. 

I’m something of a cinema addict, these days mostly via the likes of Netflix.  Thus one example of G&D is the great popularity of apocalyptic cinema – about the great alien invasion or the total desertification of the earth or the whole genre of great heroes saving us from unbelievable monsters.  At times it seems that most of our cinema and literature, even much great poetry (think T. S.  Eliot), is accurately characterized by what Lynch calls “The Wasteland Sensibility.”  I rarely watch more than a few minutes of such films since they are boringly repetitive and predictable. Yet their popularity is cause for reflection.  I suspect that people watch apocalyptic fantasies because they confirm our deeper fears.  Yet they simultaneously assuage them – because, after all, it’s just fantasy and the good guys always win. 

Much more could be said about the spread of doom and gloom among us.  Perhaps it’s always been part of our evolutionary human sense of weakness and wariness. Only the fool has no fear.  Perhaps it’s something elevated again because of our industrial waste and genocidal wars and climate crises.

***

About Zooming and Other Sources of Hope

Martin Buber famously said that “all real living is meeting.”  I have friends who believe that’s only really possible face to face.  While I understand, I nonetheless disagree.  Zoom groups have enabled me to meet with good friends during a time of lockdown and over great distances (with people in New York and Florida, Arizona and California, Germany and Switzerland).  I’ll happily continue to zoom even as I am happily returning to local, face-to-face meeting.

At the risk of being too personal, let me comment briefly on some of the zoom groups that have helped me deepen meaning and hope during this pandemic period.

Many are with elders like myself – mostly men. Many are with guys I was with during my early years in the Marianists (a Catholic religious order).  There’s also what I fondly think of as “The Regis Old Farts Group” – retired guys I worked with during my thirty years at Regis University.

We do talk about the G&D.  Indeed the next scheduled session of one of the ex-Marianist groups will focus on the climate crisis – how it’s affecting us spiritually, what we might do in response….  Yet for me at least, in this group and others, I always leave the conversation with a shared sense of hope.  Not the kind of fantasy hope which is fundamentally an escape from the hard facts.  But hope engendered by thoughtful exchange among friends.

Another “Common Bond” zoom group – that’s what we former Marianists call ourselves, bonded still by deeply shared experiences from the past.  Another CB zoom has for more than a year now been focused on the theological idea (following Teilhard de Chardin and others) of “the Cosmic Christ,” the idea that Christ is really present in the unfolding of the cosmos.  We’ve approached this idea from many angles, from the most abstract (Teilhard) to the very concrete (how Christ might be prophetically present in our neighborhoods and work amidst many evils. How Christ seeks to work through us for building a world of justice and peace? There is no avoidance of real crises in this discussion. No more than Jesus during his time with us avoided the pervasive crises of his time. Yet the overall achievement of the sessions is hope.

Then there are zooms with other groups – some faculty and administrators at Regis, and an international group of politically-involved folks.  And again, for me and (I think) the others involved, these groups deliberately take on the hard facts of our lives and our world, but in search of realistic hope and, in process of discussion, experiencing a renewal of hope.

There’s no magic here.  Just friends “daring to dream” together — to borrow from Pope Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.

A Correction re. Joseph Campbell

A good friend, in responding to my last blogpost about Roman Catholicism, noted among many other helpful comments, that:

• I was surprised when you refer to him as “the soi-distant sage, profit-making popularizer, and right wing bigot”. That is a strong judgement and I wonder about the basis for it. I went again to my expert advisor – Wikipedia which reports:

• Campbell has also been accused of antisemitism by some authors. In a 1989 New York Review of Books article, Brendan Gill accused Campbell of both antisemitism and prejudice against blacks.[82] Gill’s article resulted in a series of letters to the editor, some supporting the charge of antisemitism or accusing Campbell of having various right-wing biases, others defending him. However, according to Robert S. Ellwood, Gill relied on “scraps of evidence, largely anecdotal” to support his charges.[83] In 1991, Masson also accused Campbell of “hidden anti-Semitism” and “fascination with conservative, semifascistic views”.[84] Contrarily, the “fascist undercurrents” in Campbell’s work and especially its influence on Star Wars have been called “a reminder of how easily totalitarianism can knock at any society’s door.”[85] The religious studies scholar Russell T. McCutcheon characterized the “following [of] the bliss of self-realization” in Campbell’s work as “spiritual and psychological legitimation” for Reaganomics.[86]

My friend then continues:

• I am skeptical of the strength and basis for the charge if this kind of source is the basis. If anti-semitism is hidden, how does one know? The indication is that the sources of most of these were more conversational that in carefully thought publications. If he or we are to be judged finally judged by what may be such utterances, I shudder to think where we end up. How much of a racist or anti-semite could I be judged to be and is that then a fair summary of my life and views?

My response: I do admit that my initial comments were sweeping and too broad. And I agree with my friend’s final sentences just above. Beyond that I refer the reader to Wikipedia and other sources.

John

On Being (Roman) Catholic

It’s been some time since I’ve posted on this site.  And I’m sad to report that one of my most careful readers and critics (who regularly posted responses on the blogsite) has died unexpectedly.  Rhett Segall, a former Marianist (as am I) was a teacher of Theology in Catholic High Schools for many years.  We university professors tend to look down our noses at “mere high school teachers.”  Yet Rhett knew and articulated more theological breadth and depth than many professors I know.  So to him I say, “Rest in Peace good Brother.  I will miss your feedback.”           

Now to the present writing…  Over the years I’ve often written about the Catholic Church. Of late, I’ve tried to draft an overview of what it means, for me at least, to be a Roman Catholic, yet I’ve never been satisfied with the results.  So here’s my final and still very inadequate attempt which, will much too lengthy, still leaves out too much.

A final introductory note: in what follows I make some sharp criticisms.  Yet these are criticisms of ideas and not of the persons who hold them.  I have good friends whose life has led them to embrace these ideas.  I am not criticizing them, and I welcome their critical responses to what I write.

I’m regularly asked why I remain Catholic even as I so often criticize the Church.  Those who ask me have criticisms which I share:  about patriarchy and abuse, boring homilies and uninspiring ritual, irrelevant rules and the absence of a strong sense of community in the parishes they know. Perhaps especially criticisms of Church teaching on sexuality and gender.

What follows is my response.  It’s a personal, not a scholarly or theological essay despite its length

It Begins With Jesus

1. There would be no Church without Jesus of Nazareth.  Many scholars argue (and I largely agree) that Jesus saw himself as Prophet trying to reform the religion of Israel and not seeking to establish a new church.  Many suggest that that Paul, with his mission to Gentiles, was the real founder of a new religion.  And that Paul’s ideas are reflected in the subsequent Gospels which give clear evidence of separation of the Christian movement from Judaism.  At times they also give indications of the beginnings of new rituals and new forms of leadership in the early Christian communities.

All who call themselves “Christian” — Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic; liberal and conservative — consider themselves disciples or followers of “the way” Jesus called us to live.  Most seek especially to follow Jesus’ mission to uplift the poor, to work for justice, to bring the Reign or Kingdom of God into the social realities of his times.  Yet many find “the Church” irrelevant to that mission, often an obstacle to it.  Jesus is, for them, a guide and model, their teacher or rabbi, for some even their “master.” (In trying to pray, I often address Jesus as “boss.”) They commonly refer to “the Jesus of the Gospels”, while doubting or rejecting the “Jesus Christ” of the New Testament and subsequent Creeds – often dismissing (though they would say understanding) such beliefs as “myths.”

I admire and agree with all those trying to follow the Jesus of the Gospels who challenged us to help “the least of our brothers [and sisters].”  The itinerant rabbi who summarized all of Jewish Law with just two commands – to “love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Just as Pope Francis in his recent writings uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what real discipleship means.

Yet I still find it a bit ironic that many such folks neither believe in God nor in any judgment or afterlife.  Ironic, too, that their sweeping references to “the Gospels” often ignores what those Gospels actually say.

2. Let’s be clear.  Jesus of Nazareth was, in both Gospel story and Church creeds, a fully human being.  Weeping, angry, tender, compassionate, courageous.  Born of woman, suffering a real death.  And even, as some today insist (on the basis of sketchy texts in the so-called “Gnostic Gospels”) a man who loved that (obviously beautiful) Mary Magdalene.  (As an aside: my own suspicion about such emphasis on Jesus’ sexuality has far less to do with these texts than with the modern exaltation of sex as the central criterion for full maturity or humanity.)

Yet it is also clear to me (again, from both the Gospels and the Creeds) that Jesus was/is God’s Word to us, Emmanuel (God with Us), our Christ (Messiah) and Savior.  And it is helpful for me to realize that Jesus himself, as a human being “growing in wisdom and grace,” only gradually came to a fuller awareness of his unique oneness with God. 

Jesus believed in the One God whom he called “Father.”  He was executed for preaching the revolutionary idea that God’s Kingdom should come to this world to transform or replace both Jewish and Roman power structures.

Yet what about the “myths” of Incarnation and Resurrection which reveal that  Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God?

I use the term “myth” because I am responding to those who insist on it, even though I find it is a very inadequate way of talking about religious beliefs.  The word “mystery” better catches the reality, though it too can be reduced to just something mysterious or “supernatural” in the modern TV sense of that word.  Christian use of “mystery” always refers to a particular event or belief which demands faith.  Yet today’s widespread use of the term “myth” generally lumps all such beliefs and events into a vague commonality.  Jesus and Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed, all become much alike as “mythic religious figures” thereby losing their unique particularity and, as a result, giving insult to believers of each particular religionThe title of a book by one of these myth pushers says it all.  I refer to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”

One response is simply to observe that we would know nothing of Jesus without the New Testament writings which were written only because of those “myths.” Jesus would be but a small footnote in long forgotten Roman and Jewish histories without those mythologizing Gospels. Another blunt response would be to push a question about what is this “Gospel” that Jesus’ contemporary admirers talk about following?  Perhaps something like Thomas Jefferson’s own “expurgated” version of the New Testament which deleted every reference to anything “mythic.”

The modern attempt to discover the “historical Jesus” behind the mythic “Christ of Faith” has borne some significant results, but (and here are more fightin’ words) much of it – at least it’s supposedly scientific conclusions — is rubbish which leaps beyond evidence and has been spread by media ever-hungry for something “new.”

To be equally blunt and confrontational, most of the cotton-candy cant about myth, while perhaps derived from serious thinkers like Carl Jung, come from the soi-disant sage, profit-making popularizer, and right-wing bigot Campbell and his disciples. Again, there’s probably something to the myth idea, but it’s hardly a good basis for either serious historical scholarship, good theology, or serious faith. More like the slippery slope to watered-down Christianity and easy agnosticism.

5. I will not take up the truly difficult question about God’s existence other than to observe that there is no “problem of evil” if there is nothing like a Good God. Aquinas still makes good sense to me.  Even more does Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  As with evil, any notion of working for a kingdom of justice and peace on this earth is, as Thomas More famously said, utopian rubbish if God’s Spirit is not moving through our violent and unjust world “writing straight with crooked lines.”

6. As to the crucial claims about Resurrection and Jesus as Christ, in the end I believe those claims because of the creeds and traditions of the Church.  Chesterton said that tradition means “giving the ancestors a vote.”  That is, not allowing one’s beliefs to be shaped by the prevailing skepticism of our times.  Learn from that skepticism?  By all means.  Yet only with awareness of its own “myths” about reason, science, and freedom.  Yes, embrace reason and real science and freedom.  But be wary of scientism and individualism.  And above all bear in mind that our supposedly enlightened era is pervasively darkened by an “oblivion of eternity” which reduces reality to the savagery of history.

Then The Apostles

1.  It’s pretty clear to me that the notion of “the 12” is taken by New Testament writers to indicate representatives of the 12 tribes of the “New Israel.”  Jesus clearly chose and attracted many disciples.  Probably many more than twelve.  Including many women who played key roles, the beloved Mary perhaps first among them.  Yet such women are relegated to subsidiary roles by the NT writers  who were trying to address the patriarchal and misogynistic sensibilities of both Jews and Gentiles.

2. Also clear is that, as this new movement spread through the Gentile (Greco-Roman) world it adapted the structures of that world – by formalizing church leadership roles and ritual. 

It is likely that other movements, now termed “gnostic,” had from the beginning other ideas about Jesus and salvation, but these were condemned and buried by that same Roman power structure.  As is very clear from history, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and for the same political reasons banished all those variants.

3. So our Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome) and priests are not direct descendants by the imposition of hands from the Apostles.  They are a development within the Christian movement (by now the Church). They continued to develop through Christian history and thus can develop and change in our times.

Pope, Bishops, Priests, and The Church

As a prefatory note, I think most of my friends reduce the Church a few simplistic images about archaic structures and rules which are experienced as increasingly irrelevant and often as seriously unjust and evil.  It’s akin to the mistake made by many who reject God because they have reduced the reality of God to similarly simplistic images of patriarch and punisher or master planner and distant designer.  To some objectionable “being” rather than to Being Itself, as Aquinas would have it.  Or the Power/Ground of Being (Tillich, etc.).  Or the “Vortex of Love” as Pope Francis recently put it.

1. One of the reasons for the development of a hierarchical church is, quite simply, that it worked.  I’d even go so far as to say that, just as we’d know virtually nothing about Jesus without the Gospels, we’d know little of Christianity without the hierarchical structure of the Church. 

Said differently, without a Pope and Bishops, and without the different but similarly clerical movement of Monasticism, Christianity would not have survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent, so-called Dark Ages.  Yet it not only survived but thrived, eventually leading to Christendom, the new Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages.

2. I’d say much the same about the periods of Renaissance and Reformation which succeeded Christendom.  Some “protestants” quite consciously saw the need to continue the structures of hierarchy and sacred ritual, and thrived because of these structures.  Of course the corresponding Catholic Reformation (or counter Reformation) very deliberately emphasized these same structures while also seeking to reform them.  And even the more radical “left wing” of the Reformation, while rejecting both priesthood and sacramental ritual, ended up by filling the vacuum with new but implicit forms of priesthood and ritual.

I think that it is a general law of human organization, whether religious or secular, that when we get rid of the corrupt clerics we end up replacing them with new forms of clerical leadership.  It’s simply what human organization requires.

3. While I’m extremely critical of most Bishops, especially the John Paul II appointed majority in the US, I nonetheless affirm the need for the office of Bishop in the Catholic Church.  The present Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is for me a great example of the importance of the office of Bishop, its significance for the Catholic Church, for other religious groups, and for our secular world.  He is, in my view, the most significant religious figure in the present world because of his work for the immigrant, the poor, and against our terribly unjust social and economic structures.

Of course Francis himself is working continually (may he live long and prosper!) for reform of both hierarchy and ritual within the Catholic Church.  He is doing this not by open and polarizing conflict with his opponents in the Vatican and in Bishops’ Conferences (above all in the US), but by slowly replacing them and by demanding a challenging process of “synodality” (gathering all God’s people to discern the path forward for God’s Church).

The Future of the Church

Predictions inevitably fail.  Yet we need, nonetheless, to try to imagine our future in hopefully realistic ways.  Here are transformations of Catholicism which I imagine:

1. Feminism, for all its too many stupid and ideological forms, is nonetheless one of the most important and humanizing movements sweeping the entire globe.  Changing, often with great struggle, the structures and rituals of politics, economics, religion, etc. 

Thus it seems to me inevitable that women will soon, though probably not in my lifetime, be priests and bishops in Catholicism as they already are in most forms of Protestantism.  Eventually, Pope Elizabeth or Jean or….

2. Pastors, parish priests and local bishops, will soon enough be elected/selected through some sort of back and forth – proposals and vetoes and more of the like – as they are today among Episcopalians and Presbyterians and other “protestant” groups.

3. There will be regular “synods” at all levels – in parishes, dioceses, individual nations, and (as at present) those called by the Pope for the entire Catholic world.  None of them will be perfect, but they will nonetheless involve the entire people of God in discerning the path forward.

4. Ecumenism will flourish, not necessarily by the joining of traditions within Christianity, but by real affirmation of the other and fruitful learning from each other. 

5. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation will grow, again by mutual affirmation and work for justice — as in Francis’ major push for dialogue and cooperation with Muslims in his latest writings.

6. Finally, the different religious faiths will join with humanists to affirm the legitimacy of the growing secularity of the world, while also criticizing the many dehumanizing aspects of the present process of secularization.  Criticizing, in other words, secularism but not authentic secularity which in its many forms simply means humanization.

As my mentor Lynch stressed, such affirmation and prophetic criticism of secularization is perhaps the most significant dimension of working for the coming of God’s Kingdom, on this earth as it is in heaven.

I close by repeating my constant request that readers who wish to send responses to what I’ve written might write them on this website (as my good brother Rhett always did) so that others might benefit from such further exchange of ideas.

Palms and Easter Bunnies

It seems to have been a low-key protest. Welcoming as king this popular rabbi riding on a donkey. All of them waving palm branches. Yet that crowd had disappeared by Friday when another false messiah was executed. Of course, we Christians believe that we did indeed get a new King the following Sunday. Just one we’re not so sure about — with his riding donkeys and overturning tables in a Temple.

So some of us wave palms on this special Sunday. Many will hunt eggs and candies with their kids on Easter. Yet I suspect that most who enjoy such festivity are either unaware of or just don’t want to think about that the meaning of that first parade and the kind of king we’re celebrating. (I’m the latter.)

It really was a moment of revolution, against both the Temple Establishment and Roman Rule. Why else would those powers collaborate in crucifying him? Pilate’s sign on the cross made it contemptuously clear: INRI (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).

Of course, most of those original palm-wavers were hoping for some big miraculous event to change things. They were not insurrectionists.

And expectations of some such “apocalypse” lingered for years among both Jews and Christians. They still raise fear and hope in contemporary imaginations. Yet most of us have learned that real change for the better – for justice – comes slowly, with great difficulty and infrequent miracles.

Perhaps that’s why we’d rather enjoy chocolate Easter Bunnies.

Fortunately, the memory of that donkey and those over-turned tables has continued to provoke protest over millennia. And still today, if only implicitly, in our BLM and Me-2 protests, and in so many secular and religious movements for that “kingdom” Jesus was killed for preaching. And in the miraculous appearance among us of flawed saints like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and the ordinary saints we all know.

The Gun as Anti-Sacrament

With a Cane

I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.”  I post it again (with minor corrections and additions) since we are again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control.  Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful.  John

First, a short version:

In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions.  (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions…

View original post 1,296 more words