Revisiting Death and Afterlife

I’ve been away, but resume blogging today by revisiting questions about death and afterlife which I’ve written about frequently.  They are perennial questions which, for me, deserve regular revisiting. Yet please feel free to skip if it’s not your cup of tea.

My last remaining uncle died several weeks back and more recently a revered professor died. In addition, I regularly receive notice of the death of classmates, academic colleagues, church congregants, and other friends. It’s mainly a function of age (I’m now 77), which is also the reason that I glance daily at obits. And, as some readers know, my son died of cancer 15 years ago.

So death is often on my mind, as well as questions about afterlife – whether there is any kind of afterlife, whether Christian beliefs about death and resurrection are true, or Aristotelian beliefs about the immortality of the soul more likely, or Buddhist beliefs about nirvana and karma more reliable.

I know that many Christian friends don’t believe or are agnostic about “the resurrection and the life.” And I take their views seriously even as I continue to disagree.

Here I want to reiterate my belief that Buddhist ideas (as I understand them) about nirvana and karma as well as Christian belief in the bodily resurrection and eternal life (or heaven) are true, and that these Buddhist and Christian ideas are different but compatible.

Regarding the philosophical notion of an “immortal soul,” I find it interesting but implausible – for our souls are not separable from our bodies, even in death. Rather they are, as Aquinas best argued, the “form” (his term) or the life-force of our bodies. Without a soul the body does not live. (For what it’s worth, I also think this is also true for plants and animals.) And without a body, the soul is a myth in the negative sense – what one skeptic called “a ghost in the machine.”

I find the Buddhist notion of nirvana (again, as I understand it) quite compelling – and broadly analogous to Christian ideas about sanctity and thus related to Jesus’ saying that “the kingdom of God is among you” or “within you” (translations of Luke 17: 21 differ).

The historical Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama lived and died as we humans all do. Yet in this life he achieved enlightenment, buddha-hood or nirvana. After his enlightenment he was still fully human, teaching and touching, eating and sleeping, and so on. Yet he also lived on or in a “transcendent” level that was beyond desire and suffering – as Buddhism conceives these fundamental and world-governing powers — though beyond suffering from a twisted ankle or desiring a drink of tea.

He was recognized by his companions and experienced himself as a buddha, an enlightened one who had achieved nirvana. He was one of many such, both before his life and since. For most practicing Buddhists, then and now, buddhas are holy people who have attained enlightenment in the only way possible, while living a fully human life. They are not gods, not heavenly figures, but models or ikons or saints. Nirvana, then, is not a kind of life after death but a way of living in this life.

Those who know Buddhism know that nirvana and samsara (the force of desire and suffering which make the world go round) are identical, paradoxical as this seems. They also know that there is a “pure land” school of Buddhism which came to believe that all such enlightened ones continue to live after their death in a “pure land” that is broadly akin to Western ideas about heaven. They are, in my understanding, analogous to the Christian saints who, having achieved or been graced with holiness in this life, now reside with God in eternity or heaven.  (And if you know Buddhism and disagree, I again ask you to comment below.)

The complementary Buddhist (and Hindu) idea of karma means that the good we do in this life spreads into the world, into our families and societies (and even into the natural world), just as the evil we do (both as individuals and societies) causes evil effects to spread into the world. This strikes me as a straightforward empirical fact. Yet (the key point here) the good we do (as also the evil) lives on after our deaths. Our good karma, then, adds to the cosmic flow of compassion which pervades and grounds and nurtures this world – both while we live and after we die.

Thus, again on my understanding, nirvana means living this life deeply within the flow of cosmic compassion and contributing to it force. Just as bad karma contributes to the force of samsara (akin to biblical notions about the powers of this world) both during our lives and after we die. We ordinary humans, then, do indeed live on after this life by having contributed to this cosmic river of compassion or to its “samsaric” antithesis.

As I’ve said, I believe that these Buddhist ideas about nirvana and karma are fully compatible with Christian ideas about holiness and about death and resurrection, about the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet, as I’ve suggested, most Buddhists do not believe in any heaven or afterlife, certainly not in “the resurrection of the body.”

Christian belief in “the resurrection and the life” grew initially from debates within the Hebrew world Jesus knew (where certain schools believed in an afterlife and others rejected the idea). Christian belief was undoubtedly also influenced by Greek philosophy and perhaps by other ancient religions. Yet the one final foundation of Christian belief in heaven (and our own “bodily” resurrection) is the resurrection Jesus of Nazareth who was only then finally understood as the Christ or Messiah.

The shaping or formalizing of belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead took time, and thus there are different/differing accounts of empty tombs and resurrection appearances in the New Testament. But Christian orthodoxy has never denied that Jesus really died (in the full hospital sense of dead), just as the Buddha and Socrates really died, and as have all of our human ancestors. Just as all of us will really die. Gone, dead, nada. (Which is why I have problems with euphemistic understandings of “passing” which may suggest that aunt Emma didn’t really die.)

Yet while Jesus really died, orthodox Christian belief is that he somehow rose from the dead and returned. He appeared in what seemed a body, since he ate and talked, touched and was touched. Yet he also seemed able to appear suddenly and disappear – not “beam me down Scotty,” and not something anybody we know can actually do. Some sort of “transformed body” — my term, though an idea shared by many Christian thinkers and believers.  (Regarding the mystical transportation of place claimed for some saints, like Padre Pio whom I love, I remain faithfully agnostic.)

And because Jesus really died, and then rose to a new kind of life, Christians believe in an afterlife for the rest of us which is best understood as bodily resurrection. It’s as simple and unimaginable as that.

Yes, I know that much biblical testimony and Christian belief speaks of a “general resurrection” and judgment at the end of time for all who have died. Yet I also know that most believers, at least these days, think that their beloved dead are with God in heaven immediately. (“Aunt Emma is in a better place.”) I don’t think these beliefs incompatible, but it would take too long to explain why.  Just google around if you’re interested.

There’s more to be said and argued about all of this, and I hope anyone who’s read this far might choose to comment below.

And since Palestine and Israel are again/continually in news, I will note here my previous and final blog post on Israel should you want to look at it . As far as I’m concerned, while names and events change, nothing essential has changed from what I then wrote.

Three Days in May: Which Started with the Dog… And Ended at a Zoo

So yes, I took the dog for its morning business and, since I have a full day ahead but no deadlines, I sat with the dog in front of Denver’s Union Station and started again to notice so many other dogs, and of course many people…men and women to and from work, couples and families wandering and enjoying, all sizes and shapes. And yes, like most men, I do tend to notice women’s shapes first, but retirement has given me time to broaden my range of admiration, and not just among humans, but for critters of many shapes and sizes and species.  So much to admire.

Day 1: the dog and I

So there we were outside Union Station, seated in the chilly morning sun,  observing/appreciating. In the surrounding square blocks there are probably 50 breeds of dogs, of different ages, many sizes and shapes, female and male (and whatever other gender types dogs may have). They come regularly to the Station plaza, especially in morning and late afternoon when the young professionals living downtown rush to get puppy taken care of and kid(s) to daycare or school… Point is, lots of dogs and lots of folks on leashes being walked by dogs searching for just the right place to take care of their business, smelling everything of the same sort left by previous pups, and everything else. Of course there are also folks not being led by dogs. Some feed the pigeons and other birds who flit around pecking at what the dogs had sniffed. Some admire the shrubs and flower beds where the dogs do their fertilizing. All of which led to reflection not just on the diversity of dogs and people, but of birds and bushes and flowers as well…

I recently read that there are 40-some bird species inhabiting Denver’s City Park (which of course is a lot bigger and greener than Union Station Plaza). Over and above all the caged birds in the big Zoo in the Park.

I have relatives who are serious birders.  They know the latest guestimates about the total global number of bird species, and have probably seen at least 400 or 500 of them in parks and shorelines, wetlands and forests around the world.

Day 2, Peter and me.

Next day it’s raining – part of the weather shifts we get in Denver.  True elsewhere but, because of mountains and altitude, it’s especially true of our shape-shifting weather.

At any rate, grandson Peter Seamus and I are running into the Museum of Nature and Science which is also in City Park. It too has lots of bird species, or at least their ancient skeletons and modern (stuffed or statued) models, from eagle and osprey to raven and redbird to….

He is a bouncy and very curious three and a-half year old. I a doddering 77. Where to go, what to do – so many options – dinosaurs or North American mammals (which he choses), then a movie on service dogs or the children’s Discovery playroom (which he choose — no doubt who’s in charge here!). At each station along the way, I found myself less noticing the wondrous diversity of snakes and birds than the diversity of people moving around, talking and shouting, while they look at the snakes and birds and other critters, and of course at each other.

Mainly school kids that day – probably 20+ busloads, most from Denver schools, not from the burbs – so the diversity of not just sizes and shapes, but of skin colors and languages, and endlessly different paces of stopping and strolling, running and chasing, laughing and shouting, now and then pushing and pulling. And, of course, harried groups of teachers and parent aides (others not so hurried) riding herd on this magnificent celebratory babel of language and noise.

In the children’s “Discovery” playroom, the noises were lower and the sizes smaller – kids too young to be on school trips: the crawlers, little climbers, and short jumpers – and the guardians also mostly younger. Yes, some grandparents like me, but mostly nannies or moms in groups, the latter typically older than the former – or at least that is what I suspected as I admired the many sizes and shapes, including of course the admirable shapes and sizes of the few dads on the scene.

I tired before Peter, so we again raced the rain and returned for lunch and naps.

Day 3, Me and Jeanie

Sunny again, much warmer. So we (and the dog) trek to the Denver Botanic Garden’s annual spring sale.  The Gardens are a year-round “zoo” of plants and trees and grasses from round the globe, today augmented by the temporary zoo of seedlings for every plant species growable in Metro Denver – with accompanying varieties of soils and composts and organic fertilizers, and gloves and shovels and planters and…and… To say nothing of the also transient zoo of our human species on their own migratory search for spring flowers and summer fruits – food for both soul and body.

Since Jeanie was doing the food and flowers, the dog and I spent most of the time watching people. At least I did. Not sure about the dog.

I’d say, on the basis of my morning surveillance, that the spring sale also represents a ritual pilgrimage for the mainly middle-class devotees of our blooming green religion, along with their younger and frequently grungier fellow devotees, all acolytes and evangelists for spreading the green gospel. And, of course, it still is a sale – “sales” being the most central ritual of our more fundamental (and often less benign) American faith in markets (mostly not green). But this is a green sale, at one of our better civic temples, which then enables we, the people, to set up altars for daily devotion in gardens, window pots, arbors, and green lawns (or even higher altars in the newer xeriscape Edens).

The devotees came in many shapes and sizes. One lean and bearded old-timer – with a modern 3-pronged cane, wearing an old grey beret and a tasseled tan buckskin jacket – shuffled slowly by a seemingly chagrinned 14 year-old, one of many such, whose lean body had probably shot up a foot or more since last spring, clad in the mandated baggy basketball shorts and flat brimmed baseball cap (front facing if white, back facing if black – the kid, not the cap). Chagrinned sloop shoulders because of the 10 zillion better things he’d like to be doing, most probably in front of some loud screen, but mom controls the car and much else and she needs his man muscles to carry the dirt.

That during just the first two minutes of observation. I doubt the dog noticed.

Then there was the lioness. I had left the dog to search for Jeanie when, coming down an aisle of potted plants in one of the gospel-tents, I was brushed aside by her as she hunted, dragging and urging three cubs in her rush to pounce on the best of what was left.

Then the late-40s couple posing under apple-blossoms for a photo, he in jeans and cowboy hat, she in flowered dress, smiling their love to camera and world. And the young Filipina (we spoke) on a bike with the coolest rear wheel storage pack system I’d ever seen.  One of the gear gen. And the turbaned Singh guy (we didn’t speak since he was busy with phone business while the family’s women harvested the tented fields).

Eventually we loaded the car and left so Peter could (today in the warm sun) help Jeanie with planting.

A Moral to the Stories?

There’s both good and bad news. It’s good (Gospel) news that we live with such amazing diversity of life on this our Mother Earth, and that there is so much attention to it. Yet there’s also a not-so-slow motion Apocalypse that is our Fate — with many species newly extinct, more dying, many more threatened. An Apocalypse that already threatens our species (how could it not?) and will do so increasingly. Yet the Gospel remains true — as I’ve written previously — and with it both hope and a call to action.

A Final Word about Admiration:

My mentor William Lynch, SJ, left an unfinished manuscript which he titled “A Book of Admiration” – a book about the importance of the habit of admiration for us humans, lest we get locked into fears and oppositions which may be necessary but can too easily dominate our lives. His antidote (though he’d stress there are many) is admiration – that we continually counter or balance our fears (however legitimate) with the regular practice of admiration for all the good of our world – not so much for the “big” things (heroes, nations, leaders, IDEAS) we are supposed to admire (though I do admire Pope Francis), but above all for the small and daily things, for folks on the bus or dogs on the plaza, kids in the museum and critters at the zoo, and even the dirt (perhaps beneath layers of concrete) under our feet. Admiration may amount to little more than a momentary “smell-the-flowers” escape.  But it’s not so trivial when it becomes a regular practice in the many different dimensions of our lives.  This too I’ve previously written about.

So it was for me — and for Peter and Jeanie and (I hope) for many others throughout our city — during three ordinary days in May, filled with life, with so much to  admire even with our so many fears.

SHE WHO IS — Mother Earth…Hagia Sophia…Our Mother in Heaven…Mary of Nazareth

I was asked to preach at an ecumenical service (Presbyterian and Catholic) this past Sunday. This post is a revision of my sermon. And it is deliberately posted on “May Day” – a day of worldwide celebration of solidarity with workers, especially among Socialists and Social Democrats; AND the first day of “Mary’s Month,” long celebrated by Catholics worldwide. Should you choose to read further, I suggest you might take time for the reflective pauses enjoyed by the congregation this past Sunday.

I begin today “In the name of the Mother and Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” asking God to bless my words for our common good.

The focus of our service is the environment. My specific focus is the feminine and maternal dimensions, indeed foundations, of our world.

I choose this focus because of Amos’ words from our first reading: “Seek good, not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5: 14).

It is right to focus on the many evils involved in the environmental crisis. Fear and anger are justified, resistance and action are needed. Yet finally it is only the good that will sustain hope, nourish vision, and give courage. “Seek good that you may live.”

Following St. Francis and feminist theologians, I believe that one of the most fundamental ways to understand the great good of our world is to see its reality as feminine and maternal.

I hope by a series of brief evocations, each followed by a pause for reflection, that we might together find ourselves living in that good.

1) Let’s begin with the great image of “Mother Earth.”

Today, in early Spring, that image is especially easy to evoke as nature is reborn around us and we directly experience the reality of the earth as a mother. Yet experience of the earth as our mother has been made far more profound by our knowledge of the processes of evolution. Perhaps especially by the awareness that our own bodies and minds, with their genetic coding, have been birthed by this earth over hundreds of millions of years – and that the stages of our individual lives, from conception till death, are also “dust to dust” – coming from the clay of Mother Earth and returning to Her. It is not only the grass and flowers, but we ourselves who have been birthed by this Earth, sustained by her fields and rivers, and returned to her when we die.

So we pause to imagine and remember ways that earth is truly our Mother, ours together but also in ways unique to each of us.


2) The Hebrew Scriptures as well as contemporary theologians remind us that Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia – is at work and play in the creation and renewal of the world.

“For She is,” in the words of Solomon, “a breath of the power of God…. She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God…. Although She is but one, She can do all things, and while remaining in Herself, She renews all things; in every generation She passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets…. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well.” (Wisdom 7: 22 – 8: 1)

My colleague at Regis, Professor Chris Pramuk, has written a magnificent study entitled Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, 2009). He followed it with a shorter, more meditative version, At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical Press, 2015). Both books revolve around Merton’s late prose-poem “Hagia Sophia” (1962).

Merton begins that poem with a memory of waking early in a hospital bed on “July the second, the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation. A Feast of Wisdom” – awakened by the soft voice and gentle touch of a nurse whom he now knows had embodied Sophia. Thus he calls her “my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” “I am,” he continues, “like all mankind awakening from all the dreams that ever were dreamed in all the nights of the world….It is like the first morning of the world (when Adam at the sweet voice of Wisdom, awoke from nonentity and knew her), and like the Last Morning of the world when all the fragments of Adam will return from death at the voice of Hagia Sophia…. It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming forth from primordial nothingness and standing in clarity, in Paradise. In the cool hand of the nurse there is the touch of all life, the touch of Spirit. Thus Wisdom cries out to all who will hear…and she cries out particularly to the little, to the ignorant and the helpless.”

Merton’s entire poem (I’ve cited opening lines) does what I am attempting today – seeking to understand the ways that divinity and all existence are maternal and feminine. He does it beautifully with the detail and development of theological poetry.

As in his opening memory, I suspect that each of us as children, and then as adolescents and adults, has heard Sophia’s voice and felt her touch – from mothers and grandmothers, sisters and cousins and aunts, friends and lovers. While we probably didn’t think of their words and touches as expressions of God’s Holy Wisdom, it was She nonetheless who touched us through them, even as she now touches us – both in spring’s freshness and in the refreshing words and touches we continue to receive and to give.

I do not want to romanticize. Many of us have had difficult times with the women in our lives. Yet the goodness of Sophia’s touch remains fundamental, even amidst difficulty. So we pause to remember the women who have touched our lives, and to imagine how they have mediated Holy Wisdom’s strength and freshness to us.


I ask you now, in honor of those women and following their example, to rise and greet those around you with a word and a touch. (In the Catholic mass we call this “The Kiss of Peace,” though it occurs just before communion.)

3) Hagia Sophia is one immensely important expression or manifestation of what both feminist theology and many in personal faith recognize as SHE WHO IS. That name for God first came to me from Elizabeth Johnson’s already classic study She Who Is (Crossroad, 1992).

The Hebrew acronym YHWH, pronounced “Yahweh,” stands for the great “I AM” of God’s Pure Existence. That is to say, Yahweh means SHE WHO IS. SHE WHO IS the Source of everything else that is. SHE WHO IS pure grace and mercy, SHE WHO holds “the whole wide world in Her hands…. [like] a little bitty baby in Her hands…” (to paraphrase a wonderful African American spiritual).

She is the Great Mother imagined by ancient peoples.

SHE, as I pray adapting Jesus’ words, is “Our Mother in Heaven,” whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. SHE gives us our daily bread and forgives as we forgive. For HERS is the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever.

So, even if it is not our usual form of belief and prayer, let us pause to evoke and try to imagine the reality of SHE WHO IS, on earth as in heaven.


4) Since this is an ecumenical service, and I am a Catholic long devoted to her – when sleep does not come, I often silently sing the monastic evening chant “Salve Regina” – I now evoke the memory and the reality of Mary of Nazareth, the Theotokos of “Mother of God” proclaimed by our ancient Creeds.

She is the strong young woman who opened herself to God’s coming as her human baby. Her visit led her cousin Elizabeth to call her “Blessed among women.” To which Mary gave the exultant response read today from Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-55) and widely known as the “Magnificat.”

Mary says it is God Who has done great things for her, and raises up all who are lowly, poor and vulnerable, including (as the Psalms remind us) all the vulnerable creatures of land and air and sea.

Mary then announces the prophetic word that God will scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, and send the rich away empty, even as SHE will exalt the lowly.

Later Mary held Jesus’ tortured and crucified body, just as today our Pieta holds all who are poor and suffer injustice, depredation, even crucifixion.

With the other disciples Mary experienced her son’s resurrection, and then, in an upper room at the first Pentecost, she too experienced the Spirit-breathed birth of God’s New Creation.

Today Mary remains, as the terrible fire at Notre Dame has reminded us, one of the most civilizing and humanizing ikons at work through the millennia of Western and much of Eastern civilization, and now too in Africa and Asia. She works today, both as a cultural force and as that great Saint, our heavenly Mother of Mercy, to heal our wounded world. Something celebrated by Catholics and others at pilgrimage cites like Lourdes in France.

So let us again pause to think, even if it is not the normal practice of your church, about this lowly and great woman, mother of our rabbi-Messiah and Queen of Heaven.


Finally, for all the ideas and images, the beliefs and hopes which may have arisen during these few minutes, let us conclude by together saying “Amen” … (“May it always be so”) … and in this season we together say “Alleluia” … (“Praise to Yahweh, to SHE WHO IS”)

The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

I have been travelling of late and not writing. Yet a friend’s question led me back to my desk and to this undoubtedly too lengthy writing.

On Easter Sunday the NYT printed an interview by columnist Nicholas Kristof with Rev. Prof. Serene Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It is the latest in a series of interviews Kristof has done with Christian opinion leaders from across the theological/ecclesiastical spectrum, most notably (for me) with President Jimmy Carter and Newark’s Cardinal James Tobin. Yet both the Easter Sunday publication date and this interview’s title (“Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?”) were shocking for me and others.

I urge you to read the relatively short interview before continuing here.

As Kristof noted a few days later: “My Easter column, an interview with Rev. Serene Jones as part of my ongoing series of conversations about faith, was meant to encourage conversation across America’s God Gulf but instead generated an unfortunately toxic response.” He then describes Jones “as a distinguished scholar of Christian history” who as a result of the interview has been “accused by some religious conservatives” who were then counter-attacked by various liberals. He notes Jones’ subsequent Twitter call for tolerance and makes a similar call of his own.

Fr. James Martin, SJ, also posted an irenic disagreement with Jones in America  I agree with the substance of his response though my tone may at times be somewhat less irenic. Indeed, my first response to Jones’ remarks was both a sense of déjà vu and of offense at her breathless ease about serious topics, perhaps especially her breezy dismissal of the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus.

Yet I am fairly certain that many of my friends and many “ordinary” Christians share Prof. Jones’ doubts, if not her certainties. So I write here for such folks..

Let me, as comic overture, begin with some name-play:  Kristof, who admires Jesus’ teaching but is openly skeptical of miraculous claims, suggests thereby that “Kristof” no longer refers to “Christ” even though Nicholas still admires Jesus. And, as I’ve already suggested, Rev. Jones’ remarks strike me as hardly “serene.”

More seriously, I want to emphasize that my response here is not only to Professor Jones, but to the tradition of “liberal Protestant theology” out of which she speaks. Thus the déjà vu aspect of my response. As a theological friend recently wrote me, “Jones sounds like [many professors] I’ve met over the years” who teach at prestigious Protestant seminaries from the East Coast to the Bay Area. I hasten to add, as would my friend, that the tone which offended should not be attributed to those liberal professors and is probably not typical of Jones on most occasions.

Liberal Protestant theology (since the Enlightenment) has largely been, as I see it, less an attempt to defend traditional Christian claims than to reinterpret them in terms acceptable to secular philosophy. Some Catholic conservatives probably think the same is true of “modern” Catholic theology before and since Vatican II. Yet in both tone and substance there is a world of difference between that Catholic effort to take seriously the claims of modern science and philosophy – and similar efforts by many Reformed theologians – and the broader thrust (some would say capitulation) of liberal protestant theology. Karl Barth’s magistral study, Protestant Theology in the 19th Century (1952), remains for me the best in-depth critical study of the origins of the liberal effort.

So what do I think about these traditional beliefs and the liberal dismissal of them?
As I’ve suggested, I distinguish between two kinds of efforts (among both theologians and “ordinary” folks) to respond to scientific discoveries and philosophical critiques of traditional Christian claims. The “liberal” approach strikes me as overly responsive to modern/secular objections, even though what it is trying to do is much needed. The other approach – found in most contemporary Catholic and much Reformed theology (and among Jews and Muslims seeking to re-think their faiths) — is more careful, what I like to think of as a “progressive conservatism” (to borrow the serious name of an earlier Canadian political party). It is critically open to the truth of science and the importance of much modern thought (about evolution, for instance, and human reproduction, or about liberty and women’s rights) without capitulating to the scientism and secularism within which such truths are often expressed. For such secular “isms” are as absolute, uncritical, and wrong-headed in their claims as are Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) fundamentalists in theirs.

So yes, I believe in the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus. I also acknowledge the clear differences between New Testament accounts written long after the fact. With the consensus of most contemporary Catholic and many Reformed theologians, and the best of classical theology, I think that those differences clearly indicate that the resurrection involves transformation into a new form of existence. That’s the reason for my quotation marks around “bodily.” Resurrection, according to this consensus, is not resuscitation. Jesus really died, just as we today experience death. Yet he then returned for a brief time to his disciples in some sort of spirit-body (my term) – clearly visible, at times touchable, able to speak and eat, and thus somehow in a human body, yet no longer bound as our bodies are by time and place. This I believe, even as, with most believers, I struggle to understand it.

Professor Jones, along with liberal Protestant thought as I understand it and with some Catholic thinkers, believes that the Resurrection is best understood as a “resurrection” of trust in Jesus’ message among his disciples, and thus as the gradual resurgence and spread of the spirit of love that had first reached a prophetic fullness in Jesus’ life and teaching. Jones’ articulation of this understanding of Jesus’ Resurrection strikes me as a fair presentation of contemporary liberal theology.

Thus I find myself agreeing with the point of one of Kristof’s questions: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.” And, I would add, a particularly secular form of philosophical humanism.

As to the Virgin Birth – traditionally understood as Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse – I first of all agree that other miraculous conceptions are reported in Hebrew tradition – as in the elderly Sara’s conception of Isaac — and are also found in other ancient religions and mythologies — such as the Buddhist story of Gautama Siddhartha’s supernatural conception in his mother’s womb.

More significantly, I do share liberal questions about whether such claims are literally/physically true. I simply don’t know and, more important, I don’t think we can know.  Thus I find liberal claims which at least imply clear knowledge about such things curious at best.

So I find Jones’ dismissal (“I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim”) not only ungrounded but offensive. Why “bizarre”? Why not “poetic” or “imaginative,” or “the way ancient thought announced world-shaking births,” or even “reverently, if mistakenly, believed by earlier Christians and many Christians today.”

It is, moreover, not just the tone but also the substance of her dismissal that seems quite wrong-headed. She asserts that the Virgin Birth “has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.” Really? Wow! Why not at least admit that it’s the way that Mathew and Luke, from within their cultures, announced the world-shaking birth of the Messiah.  Thus one way they prepared their readers to appreciate their subsequent accounts of Jesus message? Instead, to repeat, we get a dogmatic assertion that the Virgin Birth has “nothing to do with Jesus message.”

Then we read Jones’ explanation for her dismissal: “The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful.” Yet it is at least interesting to note that that the Hebrew mind and its Jewish successor have never considered sexuality sinful. They, unlike Jones it seems, have long been able to distinguish between the great good of sexuality and the hard reality of sexual sin, of abuse and misuse. Christianity, too, for all its’ mixed and messy history about sex, has also been able to make that distinction even though some important theologians and too much popular preaching failed to do so.

And finally Jones’ coup de grace, her claim that belief in the Virgin Birth “promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.” That remark may touch the hearts of some soi-disant “feminists.” but there are fortunately many other feminisms.  For it does not even begin to explain the millennial oppression of women which has characterized most cultures and those religions which give no particular importance to virgin births. Nor does it acknowledge the legitimate importance that mothers, every bit as much as fathers, have long placed on protecting the bodies of young daughters.

I need to add my suspicion that most liberals who reject belief in a literal Virgin Birth may not share Jones’ “feminist” grounds for their rejection. Indeed, and here I am clearly speculating in a way that may be offensive to some, Jones seems to me to be expressing a deep kind of pain suffered by some (many?) women. And, as with pain-filled claims by racial and ethnic minorities, and even by white nationalists, the pain needs to be heard and taken seriously. But such respect does not mean agreement.

I also find Jones’ remarks about belief in an afterlife objectionable if less important. Among the adult Christians I know and read, doing good during this life is necessary in itself and not a childish calculation for gaining heavenly rewards. This is true even for those of us who do share the traditions’ hope for such rewards.

For what it’s worth, I believe in “the resurrection and the life” because I believe in Jesus’ Resurrection which Paul describes as “the first born among many” (Rom. 8:29). But I don’t try to imagine the afterlife. I find most images – from roads paved with gold or St. Bridget’s lake of beer to Aquinas and Dante’s more sophisticated image of eternal joy in the face of utter beauty – somewhat wonder-full. Yet in the end I share Updike’s inability to imagine. As in his short story (I forget the title, but hope I remember it correctly) satirizing a theological student working as a summer lifeguard and trying to imagine how the crowds at a beach and all the billions who’ve ever lived could be crowded into some vast heavenly “space.” Yet while I don’t take images of heaven too seriously, I do (again) believe in the reality of heaven because of Jesus’ Resurrection. I believe, in other words, in the transformed rebirth promised by Christian tradition — though I happen to disagree with Paul about the heavenly possibility of sex in the next life.

I could go on. Anyone who has read this far will get (and may well disagree with) the substance of my response to this undoubtedly serious professor and the liberal tradition I take her to represent.

Let me end on a hopefully irenic note. Jones closes her interview with a series of comments about Christianity (and other religions) being at “something of a turning point” where traditional beliefs and structures are failing and new forms are emerging – as happened previously at the Reformation and earlier during the times when Jesus lived. I definitely agree that we are living within a period of immense cultural and religious transition.

Most liberal and secular thinking about this transition recognizes its very real problems and challenges, but (to repeat) as I see it is moving in the wrong direction with a “naively liberal” response.  I think much the same about “naively conservative” fundamentalist responses to these same challenges. I have written to urge a more mediating or “progressive conservative” response — even though I know that some will find this little more than intellectual evasion, weaseling out of hard choices.

By the way, the best book I’ve read on the topic of this posting is Raymond Brown’s The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1972), though I freely admit to not having kept up with more recent biblical scholarship. Brown (1928-98) was a Catholic priest widely considered the best New Testament scholar of his generation. Often under suspicion from a conservative Catholic hierarchy, he was honored with a chaired professorship at Union Theological Seminary where he taught from 1971 to 1990 – well before Professor Jones’ presidency.

In Praise of Priests

As commentary on the Catholic sex abuse crisis has exploded of late, and as much of that commentary has focused on homosexuality in the priesthood and hierarchy, I have been trying to write something about homosexuality, if only to clear my own head and heart. Yet too much of what I was writing focused on my anger (at episcopal bozos here and abroad) and not enough on my sadness about good priests being tarnished and my gratitude for the many good priests I’ve known. So I’ve decided take a different tack. At the end, for those interested, I provide links to a few of the better things I’ve read about the abuse crisis and clerical homosexuality. Here I want to write in praise of Catholic priests, and to include with them (somewhat unfairly for their specific vocations) vowed brothers and monks who are also male religious figures affected by the present controversy. I will continue to write in praise of Catholic Sisters, but that is not the present issue. Nor is my great admiration for many Protestant ministers and not a few rabbis.

I write, then, because controversy about abuse and cover-up, and so much recent focus on clerical homosexuality, has cast shadows of suspicion on so many good men dedicated to the Gospel and the good of all God’s people. I am deeply saddened by the ways the present mess has tarnished and burdened them. Some are gay, others straight; most are sinners (like the rest of us), but not a few are real saints. I want to celebrate them – whether they continue today in official ministry or remain ministers of Christ since leaving such offices or have passed on to eternal reward.

Hard to know where to start since there are, for me, so many good memories and important realities.

I entered a religious congregation of brothers and priests (the Marianists) after high school because I so admired the men who were my teachers, as well as the parish priests I knew during grade school years. In retrospect, a few of these men were pretty crazy guys, though most were wonderfully ordinary. Yet they were for me, for all their limitations, men who focused my admiration and my sense of a call to follow that pretty crazy rabbi Jesus.

Of religious order priests there are so many I admire – from big names like Tom Merton (Trappist) and Bill Lynch (Jesuit) to the Marianists who taught me philosophy and literature in college and the brilliant Dominicans (French, German, Irish, Spanish) who first taught me theology in Europe. And then the Jesuits who continued that education here in the US, with whom I then taught during my thirty years at Regis (the Jesuit University in Denver) long after I had left the seminary and married. I remain inspired to a theological vocation by all their cumulative witness.

There are bishops too, starting with the present Bishop of Rome and my personal list of good popes – like John XXIII and Leo XIII in the modern era alone. Then there was Tom Gumbleton of Detroit and Ray Hunthausen of Seattle, both great leaders in the anti-war movements of my youth. And Joseph Bernadine of Cincy and then Chicago. And James Casey and George Evans during my initial years in Denver and Richard Hanifen of Colorado Springs with whom I once or twice team-taught a course at Regis.

Which makes me remember other Denver priests.  “Father Woody,” the crusty Monsignor-journalist still remembered here for making the Denver Catholic Register a first-rate weekly in the turbulent times after Vatican II (as he sat, sleeves rolled up, cigarette dangling, at his desk) — and for his constant attention to the street folks who’d assemble at his downtown parish for soup and a sawbuck, and sleep in the pews on very cold nights. He’d get the wealthy to write checks which became a roll of bills for his daily stroll – no questions asked. And also the short man with an Irish name who was long beloved by his African-American parish and by many others since. Or the somewhat sharped elbowed Monsignor who chucked it to become a Trappist.

And so on and on.

I’m writing this on the fly, with no attempt to be systematic, but names and faces keep popping up.

Such as the young Irish priest assigned temporarily to my childhood parish while he discerned about a monastic vocation, or the Marianist priest from the local high school who helped out on Sundays and ten-years later gave me my first ever “F” for sloppy writing I had turned in as an cocky college freshman. And the newly ordained Maryknoll priest back to his/my home parish for a few weeks before taking off to Chile in the mid-50s.

Most of all the Marianists – we called ourselves “fellow brothers” or “monks” — with whom I shared my years of vocational preparation, and with whom I share a deep common bond these many years later. I’m talking of well more than a hundred men. Some still active duty priests and brothers, others (having left the order, as I did) pursuing their vocations in different professions – law, education, church ministry, counselling, social work, government, art, finance, and so on. Not a few have now passed on, most like me are experiencing the joys and sufferings of age. One was by far the best university president I’ve ever known, another a religious superior in Rome who now teaches young candidates in India, another an Irish maverick who for years worked nationally for the renewal of Catholic parishes, another a writer and fierce Puerto Rican nationalist. Far too many to name (or even call to mind) at one sitting, but all very much there in memory and affection.

And the Jesuits, many scholar-teachers, some dedicated missionaries and “ordinary” parish priests. One a wonderfully thick-skinned conservative among many liberals. Another a ranch boy become scholar and university administrator. Several Vietnamese Americans, others from Latin America and Africa. Big names like Dan Berrigan and so many lesser knowns of equal or greater excellence.

My hope, dear reader, is that my superficial effort at evocation may enable you to remember many such folks – not Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracy fantasies, but real people, good men. Some I didn’t always get along with while others remain very good friends. Sinners all, to be sure, crusty and quirky, pock-marked and smooth, wrinkled with age or beautifully young.

Which brings me back to the present. When I read seemingly credible claims about the extent of gays in the priesthood, I am led to think about the past. I know now of some who clearly were gay, if only because a few later died tragically of AIDS while others have “come out” and moved on. And of others who “seemed gay,” though I know how wrong such suspicions can be. I bet some thought me gay because I once was something of a “pretty boy.”

But the obvious point, at least for me, is one of admiration. I care not a whit about whether some or many of these guys, these men, are gay or straight. I write to praise their goodness, their vocations, their many ministries, their “priesthood.”

Amen. And a big “alleluia” (praise God).


Now some worthwhile writings about the present crisis.

First several general commentaries. (There are others, as well much superficial reporting and too much stupid vitriol.)  Reporter Jason Berry has recently provided a searching and scorching three-part commentary for the National Catholic Reporter.  Papal biographer Austen Iverleigh provides a good analysis of Francis’ responses.  Finally church historian Massimo Faggioli gives a sense of the historic immensity of the present crisis.

Then a few writings about homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood and its complex connection to the present crisis.*  Andrew Sullivan, a public intellectual who is Catholic and gay has recently provided what is probably the best overall discussion both of the history and numbers, and of the connection between homosexuality and cover-up. Then New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (gay and brought up Catholic) provides a good and quite critical review of the recent sensationalized “blockbuster” book by a French journalist about the supposed reign of homosexuals in the Vatican. Finally National Catholic Reporter journalist Michael Sean Winters’ far more devastating critique of the same book.


*Recent writings about homosexuality in the priesthood and hierarchy serve antithetical purposes. Some, especially by gay Catholics, are part of the far broader program for gay liberation – this time to open the doors of the clerical closet so that homosexual priests and brothers (and nuns) will be accepted and the overall Catholic teaching about homosexuality will be changed. Personally, I applaud this agenda. On the other hand, there has for some time been a monied “conservative” Catholic campaign to blame the entire abuse crisis on homosexual clerics as a way of discrediting Pope Francis. Read and go figure if you are interested.

On the Catholic Abuse Crisis — A Very Important Review of the Pennsylvania Report

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Every previous post on this blog has been my analysis and reflection, at times including links to other news and commentary.  This time I am writing simply to call your attention to a very important and very careful — I’d say even brilliant — analysis and critique of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the massive sexual abuse by priests and the massive cover-up by Bishops which rocked the Catholic community and the nation more generally this past summer.  It  followed on the heals of the revelations that Washington’s former Cardinal McCarrick had been involved over the years with sexual abuse of seminarians which had been covered-up by other US Bishops and (it seems) by Rome.

I know that these two events angered me more than previous revelations of abuse and cover up because of the magnitude of the Pennsylvania cases and because the McCarrick case involved church leadership at the highest level.

The report is written by Peter Steinfels — former editor of Commonweal, former religion writer for the New York Times, and accomplished historian with some very important books to his credit.  It comes this late after the initial furor this summer because, as the extensive article shows, it is the result of careful research in legal documents, news reports, personal interviews, and (most significantly) a very careful reading of the more than 1,000 page Grand Jury report.

For me, it’s crucial findings are:  1) yes the abuse was terrible and “cover-ups” frequent; 2) but the report is written with such a strong tone and broad brush that it ignores the complex history both of abuses and cover-ups and of changes over time and differences between dioceses and bishops — it treats that long history as if everything, over a long period of time and with many differences of response, as if all of it were one simple and massive case of abuse and cover up.  3) The report itself is filled with evidence contradicting this simple accusation, and above all it effectively ignores changes in response mandated the Bishops’ 2002 Dallas Charter  and by most accounts quite effective.  4) Finally Steinfels alleges that the Report, with its sweeping and damming opening pages (which were all most media chose to read at the time), was part of a political campaign by the Pennsylvania Attorney General to get support for a change in the state’s statute of limitations and allow suits against the Catholic Church for crimes committed way back.

For a shorter summary of Steinfel’s long article, see Jesuit Jim Reese’s story in the national Catholic Reporter.

Better still, read Steinfel’s article, or at least spend enough time with it to get a sense of its research and criticisms.

I urge friends to read and perhaps share as I am doing here.  We’ve had so much bad news, so much of it reserved, about the Churdh and abuse, that it is important more nuanced and critical thinking be noticed and spread — even as we continue to criticize the bishops and Rome (as I have done in a recent blog here) and demand more structures of accountability.



Advent, the Environment, and Admiration

Our ecumenical service on the First Sunday of Advent was focused on the environment, both natural and human. With good words, good song, prayerful reflection, and real communion.

It brought again to mind something that regularly comes to me as I fret and try to act about our global crisis. It’s the thought that criticism will not be enough. Sure, we really do need to be critical, to educate, to spread awareness and concern about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get. And to protest against the many villains. Yes. Yes. But something more fundamental is needed as we try to turn things around. And that is admiration — even if we use some other name for the attitude and sensibility, something more than respect, perhaps intimacy and even reverence.

For when we admire the most ordinary things, we open ourselves to their goodness and beauty, their individuality and truth. Admiration is one of the most basic forms of love. It nourishes that good taste of the world without which there is no good taste of ourselves.

I am very fortunate to be able to spend many mornings with my cup of coffee on the front porch of our mountain residence – something I do through the four seasons. I started the practice as a form of meditation involving  both “lectio divina” (reading a sacred text slowly and meditatively) and quiet breathing. Soon I realized that my natural environment was the major source of my prayer — the mountain air, the trees, crows and other birds, mountain grasses and flowers, fall frost and winter snow, the sounds of silence and the rising sun dispersing fog off the lake. There always is, even when the wind howls, an experience of real intimacy, real admiration.

And this happens as often in the city.  A few mornings ago, after breakfast with a friend, I emerged onto a street busy with folks walking to work. At the corner three workers in vests and hard-hats were replacing cement between loose bricks on the old sidewalk we still have here and there in downtown Denver. I watched them work, admired their precision with the mud and the levels. Said hello with a thumbs up. The older man responded and I told him that one of my grand uncles was a bricklayer back when in New York. He smiled back.

Or it may be when sitting with the dog outside Union Station almost any time of day. Admiring the beautiful, but even more admiring the variety of ethnicities and races, classes and genders. The muscled and the trim, the heavy and heavy laden, the lame as well as the quick.  All truly admirable, even those begging or limping or suffering in other ways. For only when we acknowledge and, yes, embrace with admiration our own personal lameness and pain, our limits and inadequacy, our own sufferings…only then can we open ourselves in real compassion to the poor…and to the ironic fact that limitation is essential to our humanity and worthy of compassion which is itself  a form of admiration.  Even if it only calls forth a wave, or a smile, or some loose change.

Admiration, you see, multiplies itself, becomes mutual, spreads and grows. It’s easy to see how this happens even in busy cities. The little light passes from face to face, heart to heart – perhaps among coworkers, in stores and pubs and schools, on busses or busy streets.

As for the natural world, I doubt that I’ve heard trees talk, or mountains speak, or rapids and rivers. Then again maybe I have, even if I too often rush by, not listening or failing to catch their different language.

I am not sure that admiration and intimacy and reverence are the same thing, but they seem related and overlapping. Perhaps admiration is what we first and most continually feel in the presence of the good and beautiful and true. Yet I suspect it is always grounded in a deep reverence, however we may name its source.

So that’s my pitch today. And Advent is a good time to make it.

We all admire much and often, even when unaware. Indeed a human life cannot be lived without a steady diet of admiration for the human and the rest of nature. We’re better at it than we think.  Still we can always enlarge the frequency and range of our admiration. And that means studied practices, during Advent and throughout the year – like mindfully smelling the flowers and hugging the kids, listening to the trees and watching the stars and greeting many more faces.

Without a foundation in admiration, all our necessary anger and fear, our actions and protests, risk simply spreading further division and greater alienation.

Let me close with a final example. I happened to catch a rerun of My Fair Lady the other night. One song lingers. The young man sings of admiration “On the Street Where You Live.” It is, of course, his infatuated admiration for Liza that breaks into song, but that admiration spreads along the street, to lilacs and larks and enchantments pouring from every door. Sure it’s terribly romantic. And good for that, so long as admiration spreads from the romantic to the ordinary, and even unto the tragic.

Some Thoughts for “Secular Humanist” and “Spiritual” Friends — In Honor of Karl Jaspers


This posting came to me out of the blue, though I have previously written about problems I have with “humanist” and “spiritual” distancing from religious faith. It may be of interest to the academically inclined, but may help others who hear much these days about folks who are “spiritual but not religious” and others called “secular humanists.”

What follows are notes from the German “existentialist” philosopher Karl Jaspers. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about him and, while I ended disagreeing, I learned much in the process. I still find him a very important 20th Century philosopher and humanist, even though he has been eclipsed in current US academic philosophy.

1. It will seem pretty clear to most that we are living through an era of religious disruption and crisis. The foundations of the great religious traditions have been shaken. Those Muslims and Christians and Jews, as well as Hindus and Buddhists and Confucians, who remain faithful and practicing in their religion are increasingly also modern people who simultaneously believe and doubt – who at very least are no longer so deeply rooted in their religious tradition as were their ancestors.

Of course, some traditional believers have moved in the opposite direction, reacting to modern challenges by emphasizing the absolute truth and stability of their religion. We typically hear such folks called (in praise or blame) “fundamentalists” or “strictly orthodox.” Others, of course, are the already noted “spirituals” who have moved from traditional faith to some broader (and for me vaguer) sense of spirit and faith. And then there are the “secular humanists” (agnostic or atheist) who clearly reject or claim unknowability about religious faith. Their spirituality is grounded in belief and hope in human goodness.

2. Karl Jaspers wrote extensively about this contemporary and increasingly global “crisis of faith.” Raised a fairly secular German Lutheran, but married to a Jew with whom he jointly survived the Nazis, he did not consider himself a Christian, but saw that the future of our humanity depended on the restoration and nurturing of faith among both the elites and the ordinary folk. Without a deep faith pervading both personal and public life, he was convinced (as are many) that our present crisis would lead inevitably to the continuing decline of human society into a “worldwide factory” of production and consumption, with days of labor and nights of superficial entertainment. What some call the nihilism that results from “the death of god,” and others describe simply as the rise of masses of people who may seem satisfied but often live (perhaps unknowingly) “lives of quiet desperation.”

3. There are, of course, many further ways to describes this contemporary religious crisis and to analyze its causes. Yet, to keep this brief, I will stop with the preceding paragraphs and simply suggest that most other discussions overlap and expand on such ideas.

4. Jaspers himself hoped to develop the idea of “existential” or “philosophical” faith as an alternative to traditional religious faith. Yet his thought about faith was not simple. The two dominant forms of faith in human experience are religious faith and philosophical (or humanist) faith. And they are mutually interdependent. He argued that without human faith in some kind of ultimate good, some “transcendent” reality or (to change the metaphor) some foundational ground of being, we are simply doomed or fated to sophisticated forms of barbarism (though most actual barbarians were people of faith).

Jaspers used many different terms to describe the object of faith or the ultimate in which faith is grounded. I especially like his use of the German word Ursprung (“original source”), perhaps simply because of its sound, but also because I too have difficulty with “big guy in the sky” ideas about faith and (can I now use the word?) God or gods.

5. So here are Jaspers challenges to my humanist and spiritual friends, challenges I share:

a. He first says that your positions are logically unsustainable and thus will not contribute to the long-term restoration of our humanity. Though they clearly and happily may continue to serve the good of your humanity. Without, in other words, an at least implicit affirmation of faith (whether philosophical/humanist or religious) – an affirmation of a “transcendence” or “ground of being” or “ultimate good” or “Ursprung” – neither secular humanism nor the new spiritualism can be sustained.

b. He goes further. He makes the historical and sociological claim that even his own philosophical faith in transcendence cannot be sustained without the restoration of religious faith on a major scale. For in human history and culture, among most humans, it has been the great religious traditions which have been bearers and sustainers of human faith. If they do not manage to survive and revive, then even more philosophical and humanist forms of faith cannot persist. (How that revival may happen is where Jaspers and I disagree.)

So there ‘tis. Watcha think?

With apologies for all the jargon and abstraction, and the length.

Pope Francis at Regis — Challenge and Hope

This is my first attempt at significantly shorter blog posts.  I hope it might make it easier for readers.  John

I’ve all been reading so much lately about crises and polarizations in our world (including the Catholic world). And about rising levels of both anger and depression. So it was good news that Regis University recently hosted a very well attended symposium on Pope Francis’ vision for a suffering world.

Speakers and panel addressed Francis’ writings on family life, on mercy, on poverty and immigration, on prayer. The entire freshman class heard former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter along with a theologian and an economist comment on Francis’ challenging words about our environmental crisis. Ritter said that the Pope’s Laudato Si’ is a letter to all of us and urged students to read it.

As a retired Regis faculty member (Religious Studies) and part of the three-day conference audience, I came away both very challenged and broadly hopeful.

Neither Francis in his writings and travels, nor the conference speakers, underestimate the crises and challenges which elsewhere provoke such angers and such depression. If anything, the speakers – mainly theologians (increasingly laity, women as much as men), but also two bishops and folks from other professions – unfolded the many dimensions of crisis which we face. And they did not ignore rising Catholic anger and deep dismay about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

Yet all returned in a variety of ways to Francis’ overarching call for mercy – not as passive sentiment but as active virtue. Mercy as a verb or “mercifying” as one speaker put it.  For mercy, as the Pope understands it (and as speakers emphasized), means going into the streets of our world, even if that means getting muddied by people’s suffering and by the mess of conflict and criticism and even violence. (Francis canonized the martyred Oscar Romero, quite symbolically for the symposium on its final day.)

For Francis, active mercy especially means solidarity with immigrants and refugees and the poor, but also reaching out to the angry and depressed, and to those deeply polarized by our various cultural and political wars. It also means speaking critical truth to power (as Francis did a few years ago before the deeply polarized US Congress) and crying out for justice. Yet always by seeking dialogue and reconciliation. And by suffering insult and the injury of false accusation (as Francis has recently).

As I’ve already said, I came away both deeply moved and very challenged, but with chastened and realistic hope, not just sentimental piety.

Clericalism is a Heresy; the Heresy is Gnosticism

This posting is too long, yet barely scratches the surface of the topic. Thinking about clericalism got me thinking again about Gnosticism. In what follows I try to explain that the still powerful heresy of Gnosticism is the root of today’s clericalism, and thus the root of the sexual abuse and cover-up crisis.

In what follows, especially in the examples I give from my experience in Denver, I make hard judgments and on occasion use harsh language. Yet I believe the present moment allows, perhaps demands, such judgments and rhetoric, even if they risk adding to present polarization. I hope that my language does sting, but that it may not wound.

Recent calls for reform in the Catholic church correctly focus on “clericalism” – on that aspect of clerical culture which for so long protected criminals, which still allows (I believe) too many in the hierarchy to hide behind veils of secrecy, and which more broadly continues to encourage some priests and bishops to assume pretentious and sanctimonious superiority – though thankfully this is not true for the vast majority of good priests or most bishops.

So why another comment about such “clericalism”? Because we need to get beyond “old boys club” descriptions if we are to oppose it. This essay, following Pope Francis’ suggestion, seeks to explain how a seemingly ancient heresy called “Gnosticism” is the root of today’s clericalism. For there will be no truly radical reform of clericalism if we do not discern the operation of that rotten root.

Let me, however, be clear from the first about the difference between clerics and clericalism. The latter is a corruption of the former. And the former – the existence of a class of professional “clerics” – is simply inevitable and necessary in human organizations. Said differently, whatever reforms are needed in the Catholic church, we will still need clerics – trained professionals subject to standards as well as scrutiny – whether they be married or celibate, female or male, given special licensing (ordination) or just in fact running things. The need for clerics, as I’ve said, is simply a fact about human organizational behavior. And not just in churches. It is as true for medicine and law, business and politics and education, as it is for religion – true even in the most egalitarian institutions. Yet such clerical groups have always been (and will remain) susceptible to the vice or corruption of clericalism.

What we Catholics, then, need to understand and oppose is the clericalism which corrupts the clerical structures of our church. And from my perspective no one has called for such discernment and reform more insistently than Francis.

For despite criticism from both right and left, he has been hard at work since day one trying to reform the culture as much as the structures of the Vatican and the hierarchy. Even more fundamentally, of course, since day one he has with constant urgency called all of us, whatever our “office” or situation in the church or in the wider world, to reform of our lives. That was the central message, for both priests and people, of his first major exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel” in 2013.  It was even more explicitly the challenge of his recent 2018 exhortation “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.”

My remarks here about clericalism as a gnostic heresy draw primarily on that latter text. For there, after an opening chapter on the universal call to holiness, Francis writes what seems a fairly academic second chapter on the heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. In subsequent chapters he discusses more traditional aspects of the call to holiness, such as the third chapter’s meditation on the Beatitudes and the final chapter’s discussion of discernment. (The entire document is very much worth reading and even prayerful re-reading.) Yet while Francis’ discussion of Gnosticism and Pelagianism will be abstract or academic for most readers, I believe it is very important. For these ancient heresies are perennial human tendencies, prevalent today as much as in the past. And we still need to discern their presence and oppose their power, both in ourselves and in the structures of our church, and in the wider world.

These days, though, we typically don’t know what to make of talk about heresies. For many the whole idea is an embarrassment – a reminder of inquisitorial pasts and witch-hunts. For others it’s just a kind of theological name-calling. So most don’t talk about it. Yet that, Francis clearly suggests, is a serious mistake. For heresies are powerful realities affecting the present, powerful ideas and tendencies which get embodied in personal vices and cultural corruptions.

Pelagianism, for instance, may well be the besetting vice of American life. For we Americans continue to embrace an imperative rooted in our Puritan and Enlightenment beginnings – an imperative to “action,” to enterprise, to constant making and doing – whether in business or politics or just in constant efforts to improve our individual lives. It is an imperative, a deep urge and urgency, to do and do and do…and then do some more. It is not just a matter of superficial slogans to “just do it.” It is, rather, a very strong and often a very destructive force that pervades our lives. And many of us, even if we would never use the term “Pelagianism,” are increasingly aware of how it burdens daily life and leaves us often exhausted. We may also know the difficulty of resisting its imperatives.

Fewer, I suspect, are aware of the Gnosticism which is a constant counterpart and the typical antecedent to such Pelagianism.

Yet Francis makes it clear that both these heresies are real and present dangers. He calls them “false forms of holiness” which present themselves as the real thing, as real holiness, as “orthodox” Christianity.

He describes Gnosticism as an intellectual and spiritual tendency to equate holiness (or being “on the right side”) with the inner light of special knowledge (gnosis) – knowledge possessed above all by insider elites. Pelagianism is the correlative tendency to think that we, especially “those in the know,” attain such righteousness by our own efforts, especially by following the rules and practices that identify us as the good guys.

I write to suggest that the forms of clericalism which distort the church are all rooted in the heretical Gnostic claim to special knowledge or doctrine – to a special knowledge which alone saves us from the outer darkness of “the world” and the mess of its streets, knowledge which also allows condemnation of others who seek more authentic forms of Catholicism. Gnosticism, in other words, is the ground of clericalism’s sanctimonious claims to superior righteousness.

Francis would seem to agree with my linkage of Gnosticism and clericalism since (at least as I read his text) the most obvious target of his second chapter are the self-proclaimed “orthodox,” especially in the Vatican and the hierarchy, who believe that they alone possess the truth and thus have the right and duty to rule, even to “excommunicate,” those who do not embrace their orthodoxy and submit to their rules.

Of course this suggestion may itself be pretty abstract and academic. So let me attempt to illustrate some of the ways I think that Gnosticism is at work in today’s clericalism.

My examples are not drawn from the present crisis, but involve far more common forms of clericalism which (I strongly believe) have made those terrible extremes possible. My examples are drawn from my experience in Denver, though I suspect the reader who is sympathetic to my argument will readily identify analogous examples from her or his experience. They begin with overall episcopal attitudes and arrogance, then move to clericalist control of the liturgy, and finally take up contemporary conflicts about sexuality and gender.

Of course, my judgments may well be quite wrong, more testimony to my liberal/academic Gnosticism than evidence of clerical Gnosticism. Yet even if, as I believe, my judgments are accurate, it remains very important to add that I cannot judge the personal motivations of the clerics involved, sorely tempted though I am to do so. As Pope Francis has famously said, only God can judge consciences. I assume that these men are sincere and not directly culpable for the heretical corruption I find in their attitudes and behavior.

As a first example, let me speak about the ways Gnosticism corrupts the hierarchy, particularly the office of Archbishop in my home diocese. I actually know little (and frankly care less) about the present Archbishop who seems little more than an episcopal place-holder. Yet I had some direct experience with his predecessor, Charles Chaput, now in Philadelphia. For we crossed swords a number of times in the Denver newspapers when he sought to pressure Catholic voters during two successive presidential election cycles. Many will remember the stories which got national attention. By letters read from the pulpit, editorials in the diocesan paper, and other forms of public statement, he effectively told Catholics that they could not vote for Democratic candidates because they were “pro-Abortion.” Chaput himself didn’t endorse the more extreme position of the guy in Colorado Springs about refusing communion to Catholics like John Kerry or Joe Biden, but neither did he reject it.

At the time, I wrote that Chaput and his cronies were abusing their legitimate ecclesial authority with a sleight of hand designed (I still believe) to confuse Catholics . For they extended their quite legitimate authority to teach that abortion is evil into an authority they did not have to judge the adequacy of public policy about abortion. In doing so they ignored and effectively opposed the more nuanced voter guidelines which came both from the Vatican and from the United States Bishops’ Conference.

Fortunately, many Catholics were not fooled, though few were as articulate as one 80+ grandmother who told me, “I’ll be dammed if I let that fool tell me how to vote.” Yet my own attempts to explain more authentic Catholic teaching (as expressed by the Vatican and the USCCB) in the local newspapers put me more firmly on the diocesan black list. And an effort to meet with Chaput – on his turf, with a promise of total confidentiality – simply to try to find some common ground, was rejected on the grounds that it could cause scandal to the faithful if it got out that their Archbishop was actually talking to this heretic.

As one further example of Chaput’s superior (and Gnostic) knowledge, I note that in a lengthy interview at that time in The New Yorker he made the explicit claim that most Catholics in the pews were really “Protestants who continued to go to communion.” How’s that for an exaggerated claim to knowledge? How’s that for pastoral outreach to the flock he is ordained to serve (and the folks paying his bills). And how’s that for fidelity to the ecumenical outreach mandated by the Second Vatican Council? But of course he knew better.

For me (and it shows in my rhetoric) all such pronouncements, from Chaput or other bishops, stink of Gnostic clericalism. Even as they are typical of many bishops appointed by the late and supposedly great John Paul II.  (Saints can be awful managers, and often are.)  Those who, one suspects, have long opposed Vatican II and of late have secretly signed on for the campaign against Francis. All, of course, because of their special insider knowledge.

I should add at this point in my rant that I support the episcopal structure of Catholicism – the fact that we have bishops (and a Pope) in key positions of governance. Like the general inevitability of clerical classes, the historical development of the office of bishop, with all its twists and turns, and even its frequent corruptions, strikes me as a good thing – perhaps especially now in this era of a global church. Yet I don’t believe there’s much evidence that Jesus himself established this structure or even made Peter the “first Pope.” And it seems clear to me that the future evolution of this episcopal form of governance will involve far greater local control in the selection of bishops, with women priests electable to the office, and so on and on.

Now a second and more specific example of such episcopal/clerical gnostic overreach — the ongoing effort by many bishops to micro-manage the way the baptized worship, always of course in the name of fidelity and good order. Episcopal control of priests and of the liturgy has, of course, a complicated history. And much of that history has involved needed reforms to wrest control from the corrupting influence of money and political authority – whether by medieval princes or Communist bureaucrats. It’s also clear that Vatican II called for further development in the relationship between clerics and laity, and between the local episcopates and the Vatican – something largely stalled by John Paul and only now again called for in very preliminary ways by Francis. Yet many episcopal-clerical Gnostics still believe (sincerely one suspects) that they alone are really “in the know” when it comes to liturgical forms and practices.

To my mind, the most obvious national example of such Gnostic over-reach remains the closed-door cabal some years back to “restore more authentic language” in the mass even though that meant opposing liturgical language agreed upon by all their predecessor bishops in the English-speaking world. I remain amazed that the people in the pews went along with this – probably because their pastors urged acceptance to avoid a public dispute with these “orthodox” hierarchs. (Which itself is a good example of the attitudes and collaborations of clericalism which have led to such scandal in the matter of sexual abuse.)

The most obvious international example of Gnostic over-reach (and yes, I am accusing him of heresy, however non-culpable) was John Paul’s fatuous (and totally ineffective) proclamation not only that women could never be priests but that all discussion of the matter must be banned. As if. But he clearly thought he knew.

But let me cite a recent local example of clericalist efforts to control people’s prayer at mass.  When I am in Denver, I typically go to Sunday mass at a church which for years, and with the pastor’s encouragement, has developed a strong tradition of congregational participation. Before the consecration, for example, the pastor would invite those who wished to come forward around the altar. Typically half the congregation would do so, the others happily remaining in the pews, mostly standing, most joining hands during the Our Father, and all returning to their seats for the Kiss of Peace and for orderly procession to receive Communion. This church’s practice was very reverent and communal and, as I said, a matter of long-standing practice or, dare I say it, of serious tradition.

Until, that is, the recent appointment of an absent pastor and of a Sunday presider whose heavily accented English is virtually unintelligible, and then the even more recent reception of a letter from the diocesan bureaucracy which has mandated that the congregation remain in their pews and kneel from the consecration through communion. Why? So that this parish follow canonical rules as a sign of the unity of the diocesan church. Duh? How about support for immigrants as a sign of unity among local parishes?

As far as I can tell, this recent mandate is all about control. It is, as I see it, a clear violation of the church’s teaching at Vatican II about lay participation in the Liturgy. But these Gnostics know best. They have never (in my opinion) taken the Council seriously and now see themselves as “chosen” to correct what their inner circle considers all forms of “post-conciliar excesses.”

But enough about liturgy, though there are many other examples of such gnostic overreach in this crucial arena of church life.

One such example – control of rules and rituals for marriage — leads me to a third arena of clericalist Gnosticism that may be the most important in terms of its destructive effects on church unity and authority and membership. I’m speaking about the hierarchy’s continual efforts to impose a narrow orthodoxy in matters of human sexuality. Chalk this one up as well to John Paul the Great since he clearly made such “narrow orthodoxy” the litmus test for the appointment of bishops during his long reign. Though Paul VI also deserves blame because of his resort to special insider knowledge about birth control.

Before going further, let me stress what I’ve long said and written. I believe the broad outlines and fundamental elements of Catholic teaching about sexuality are sane and especially needed as a critique of enlightened opinion and Hollywood persuasion about our sexual behavior. Here, though, I am arguing that clericalist Gnosticism has distorted such official Catholic teaching – made it little more than a “narrow orthodoxy” that is ignored by many (most?) Catholics and far less helpful than it could and should be to all of us living in this often sexually crazy culture.

I call the official Catholic teaching about sexuality narrow (and Gnostic) because it is proclaimed and where possible (as in rules governing marriage) imposed by folks who don’t walk the streets with their people and for the most part find it impossible to learn from people’s experience of discerning God’s presence in their struggles for sexual and marital sanity. They — and here I am talking about the guardians of orthodoxy, not the many, many good priests who as pastors have indeed walked the streets with their people — they have not tried to help their children move into sexual maturity and healthy marriages. They have not suffered with divorce among family and friends, nor rejoiced when the divorced find some healing and hope, often in a more mature relationship and marriage. They have not had to grow through the challenges of more equal relationship between the sexes, or the often hard won liberation of embracing alternative sexual identities. Thus it is all too easy for them to join Archbishop Chaput in seeing so many of their people as protestants who happen still to go to communion. And to allow the Catholic teaching on sex and marriage to become narrow and often arcane. And to effectively sideline all those seeking significant reform and development of such teaching.

Enough said, yet not nearly enough. Many undoubtedly agree with me about the need for development in Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage. Many will continue to disagree, often ferociously. Thus our present culture wars about that teaching. Thus too the great need for dialogue and discernment among us – laity and clergy alike and together. (On such discernment, I again recommend the concluding chapter of Francis’ recent exhortation.)

Yet Gnosticism on all sides – among liberals as much as conservatives, laity as much as clergy – is the great obstacle to such discernment and dialogue. In this writing I have been especially concerned to criticize the heretical Gnosticism that is the root of today’s clericalism. Yet the corruptions of Gnosticism are far more widespread (and more dangerous) than the present crisis in our church. I hope in future writing to discuss the wider and more corrupting reach of such Gnosticism.

St. Paul often wrote to the early Christian communities about the deep disputes which divided them. And he regularly counselled against our temptation to know more and better than our opponents. Let me end with one such warning: “Brothers and sisters: knowledge [gnosis] inflates with pride but love builds up. If anyone supposes he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.” (I Cor 8: 1-3)