Friday, December 06, 2013

With Francis, "The Message of Those in the Margin Has Been Heard in the Halls of Power"

Jeff Dietrich, who has been a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker for over forty years, has published in the National Catholic Reporter a commentary hailing Pope Francis that I find just excellent.

Dietrich praises Francis for speaking with the authority of the Roman Catholic Church itself what the Catholic Worker people have been living and proclaiming from the margins for decades.

Below is the entirety of Dietrich's piece, including the following picture that NCR posted with it.

Pope Francis leads a meeting with the poor in the archbishop's residence Oct. 4 in Assisi, Italy. The meeting was in the famous "stripping room," where St. Francis stripped off his rich clothes, gave them to his father and began a life of poverty dedicated to Christ. (CNS/Paul Haring)

I have never expected to be affirmed for the work that I do. So it was shocking and a little disorienting to receive affirmation for my often-less-than-appreciated efforts from the very last place I would expect: the highest authority of the Roman Catholic church.

I have been working at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on Los Angeles' Skid Row for over 40 years. I have published articles and books that have criticized prelates and politicians. I have occupied the cardinal's bell tower and his bulldozer to protest the exorbitant expense of a new cathedral. I have blockaded the mayor's bathroom, calling for porta-potties for the homeless. I have laid my body under city dump trucks to protect the personal property of the homeless from confiscation by city officials. I have gone to jail twice with the Occupy folks, protesting the excesses of Wall Street. I have always taken the part of marginal people, suffered the ire of the powerful, and felt the sting of being on the margins myself.

So I was thrilled to read Pope Francis' manifesto sharply criticizing the excesses of capitalism, calling for "a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets." This is not the church I have known since my days at St. Mary's Grammar School. It sounded a bit like what I have been doing for the last 40 years. I felt like the spy who came in from the cold, the voice in the wilderness suddenly propelled from the margins to the center of the very church I have spent my entire adult life criticizing.

Now for the first time in my life, I could hear a voice within the institutional church that echoed my own. Pope Francis' two fundamental issues are the same as mine: "the inclusion of the poor in society and ... peace and social dialogue." His is a strident voice calling for priests to leave the confines of their cozy rectories and secure sanctuaries and head out to care for and defend the victims of unmerciful financial markets. It is a voice that is not afraid to attack the only true "religion" of our era: capitalism. He tells us that "everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless."

While I do not agree with every papal utterance, especially those regarding women and sexuality, this may be a revolution in rhetoric only with no official policies to make structural changes within ossified church structures. For instance, I don't expect the pope to sell off the treasures of the Vatican and give it to the poor anytime soon or to fire all of the conservative prelates appointed by his predecessor. But in the meantime, I don't care.

This is a pope who cooks his own food and refuses to fly first class, live in a papal palace, ride in a limousine or wear the royal trappings of his office. This is a pope who is the solitary world figure with institutional authority that has the temerity to speak out against the idolatry and misanthropic nature of the world capitalist system. This is the only world figure to speak out boldly against the systematic starvation of the poor.

This is a pope who occupies the bulliest of all bully pulpits in the world and has radically moved the discussion of Catholic theology from what happens below the waistline to what happens in the streets. And if nothing else happens, he has removed theological justification from every parish priest or bishop who wants to build an extravagant, unnecessary church or purchase sumptuous satin vestments. He has prevented Catholic legislators like John Boehner and Paul Ryan from wrapping Ayn Rand capitalism in the mantle of Catholic social teachings. He has ripped the mask of rectitude from the leaders of the developed world who can no longer preach trickle-down capitalism as if it were the gospel of salvation.

But most of all, he has given hope to the poor as well as to the lone voices in the wilderness, "bruised, hurting and dirty" from their thankless work for justice on the streets. They can now speak not only with the authority of Jesus and the Gospels, but with the authority of the Roman Catholic church itself. Finally, the message of those in the margin has been heard in the halls of power. As one of my favorite poets once said: "The times, they are a-changin'."

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

If Pope Francis Puts People First, They Will Reform Deficient Doctrines

In an important new article in the National Catholic Reporter, Hans Kung -- the theological nemesis of every pope since Vatican II -- suggests that (1) the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has not bought into the pastoral outreach which Pope Francis has emphasized pretty much daily since his election, and (2) that, on the pope's specific outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics, the CDF has already taken steps that aim to prevent it.

Because Joseph Ratzinger headed the CDF under John Paul II and then incorporated CDF's conservative positions into his own papacy as Benedict XVI, Kung used to find himself criticizing the CDF and the pope simultaneously.  But with the election of Francis, a pope he clearly treasures and finds much more agreeable, Kung now gets to champion the pope against the CDF.

Beyond divorce and remarriage, Kung lists several issues on which Pope Francis and the CDF now seem to be pulling in opposite directions.

The significance of this cannot be exaggerated:  although this pope's instinct is to tackle pastoral outreach and pay as little attention as possible to "settled" church teachings, the CDF is not inclined to let him do that.

But in that stance, the CDF may actually be doing Francis and lay people a huge favor:  because the insistence of Vatican II, especially in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is that the signs of the times and above all the lived experience of ordinary people must be allowed to reveal deficiencies in church doctrines and ways those deficiencies can be corrected.

So if he continues the inspired course he has followed since his election on March 13, 2013, Francis sooner or later will have to face the fact that pastoral outreach -- which means taking lay people seriously -- will lead inexorably to new teachings that will put new limits on the teachings they replace.

As my doctoral dissertation argues, this process is precisely the way church teachings change over time.  If the pastoral outreach does not lead to better teachings, then lay people will not have been taken seriously and the pastoral outreach will be regarded as bogus.

Francis has given every indication that in fact he does take lay people seriously.  Let us pray that he understands where this conviction must lead, and that he will have the strength and courage to lead us there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Theologians Call Catholic Sexual Teachings "Incomprehensible," Urge Lay Input

The National Catholic Reporter has also posted an important article noting that over fifty Catholic academics in a dozen countries have signed a statement calling "the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality 'incomprehensible' and . . . asking bishops around the world to take seriously the expertise of lay people in their preparations for a global meeting of the prelates at the Vatican next year."

The signers urge the synod bishops to listen carefully to the experience of ordinary people who find unlivable the traditional church teachings on divorce and remarriage, cohabitation before marriage, same-sex marriage and contraception -- and they also urge all Catholics to take every opportunity to voice their experience by participating in the pre-synod questionnaire.

What is gratifying to me in particular is that the academics' critique of church teachings on human sexuality is sometimes a verbatim statement of the comments I made when I completed the church reform groups' survey.

National Catholic Reporter Offers More Ways to Give Input to Family Synod

The National Catholic Reporter has run several more articles on the questionnaire issued to prepare for the 2014-2015 Synod on the Family.

Among the most helpful was Lay Groups Launch Surveys to Answer Vatican Questionnaire, posted on Nov. 16, 2013.  It announces two surveys posted online for Catholics to communicate their input.

One of them, posted by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good on Nov. 1st at, is not as helpful as some, because in allows for feedback only in narrative form.

However, the other is better:  it allows for multiple choice answers to many of the questions, followed by narrative comments if desired.  Launched by a coalition of 15 church reform groups, it's open for input through Dec. 15th. at

The church reform groups, primarily members of Catholic Organizations for Renewal, include Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, FutureChurch, DignityUSA, the Women's Ordination Conference, and CORPUS (which originated as the Congress of Resigned Priests United States, but now dubs itself simply as "a ministerial community").

I completed the church reform groups' survey and found it very helpful in providing my input.  Being able to use the comment fields after the multiple choice questions allowed me to give the rationale for several of my answers.  I highly recommend it to anyone who would like their input heard.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

There Are Ways for Catholics to Participate in the Vatican Survey on Family Synod Issues

There has been quite a buzz over the announcement November 5th that, in preparation for a 2014-2015 Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has asked for input from Catholics around the world on several controversial issues impacting family life today.

The controverted issues include divorce and remarriage, contraception, cohabitation without marriage, same-sex marriage, as well as how to provide pastoral care and inclusiveness to people who find themselves in such "irregular" situations (as the Vatican document describes them).

There is disagreement regarding the significance of the Vatican initiative (does it go beyond previous pre-synod practice, for example?) and whether the Vatican expects national bishops' conferences to get actual input from the people in the pews, or even perhaps the unchurched (the Bishops of England and Wales turned the questionnaire into a web link where anyone can give their opinions; still digging in their heels against "the Francis effect," the U.S. Bishops seem determined to avoid the laity at all costs).

But as the New York Times reported, this particular Vatican pre-synod initiative seems to go well beyond previous ones in the scope of its outreach and in unusually detailed content -- and to be unique because it seems to be in preparation for two back-to-back synod gatherings in 2014 and 2015.

Regardless of the U.S. Bishops' ultimate strategy on the questionnaire, there are ways for individual U.S. Catholics to participate in giving their personal opinions on the questions asked.

The National Catholic Reporter provides links not only to the questionnaire itself, but also to various cover letters that distributed it and contain physical addresses where written responses may be sent.

The Bishops of England and Wales are also open to survey answers on their website from Catholics in other countries (and apparently anyone who cares to join in).    But they have set a November 30th deadline for completing their survey online.

Progressive Catholics who have lobbied fifty years for more input from the baptized and more collegial decision-making in updating church teachings should not miss out on this historic opportunity:  Tell church leaders what we think and how they ought to extend pastoral outreach, care and inclusion to those who object conscientiously to church teachings grown out of touch with the deepest longings of the human heart.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

From Free-Market Icon to Unperson: Alas, Milton Friedman, They Hardly Know You

This blog has repeatedly referred readers to columns by Paul Krugman, Nobel prize-winning economist in 2008 and, since 1999, op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Sometimes this is not entirely productive, since Krugman tends to harp repeatedly on a few key themes.  Chief among them:  the failure of conservative economists to learn the lessons of the Great Depression and how mistakes by the federal government inadvertently extended it.

So it is not surprising that Krugman returns to this theme in his criticism of the economic ideas of the two politicians most highly regarded by Tea Party Republicans:  Sen. (Ayn) Rand Paul and Congressman Paul (Ayn Rand) Ryan.  (Did I mention both worship Ayn Rand?)

What is noteworthy about Krugman's latest foray, though, is that he commends the late Federal Reserve Chairman Milton Friedman, "who used to be the ultimate avatar of conservative economics," for making concessions to reality in an effort "to save free-market ideology from itself," and then shows how far Paul/Ryan have devalued Friedman -- and Friedman's humility and wisdom.

His point is that Friedman could be swayed by reality and modify his theories to deal with it, while "the modern right...rejects reality" -- which, Krugman says snidely, "has a well-known liberal bias."

Krugman's column shoots down Paul/Ryan's flight from reality so brilliantly that I could not resist sharing it in full below:

Recently Senator Rand Paul, potential presidential candidate and self-proclaimed expert on monetary issues, sat down for an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. It didn’t go too well. For example, Mr. Paul talked about America running “a trillion-dollar deficit every year”; actually, the deficit is projected to be only $642 billion in 2013, and it’s falling fast.

But the most interesting moment may have been when Mr. Paul was asked whom he would choose, ideally, to head the Federal Reserve and he suggested Milton Friedman — “he’s not an Austrian, but he would be better than what we have.” The interviewer then gently informed him that Friedman — who would have been 101 years old if he were still alive — is, in fact, dead. O.K., said Mr. Paul, “Let’s just go with dead, because then you probably really wouldn’t have much of a functioning Federal Reserve.”

Which suggests an interesting question: What ever happened to Friedman’s role as a free-market icon? The answer to that question says a lot about what has happened to modern conservatism.

For Friedman, who used to be the ultimate avatar of conservative economics, has essentially disappeared from right-wing discourse. Oh, he gets name-checked now and then — but only for his political polemics, never for his monetary theories. Instead, Rand Paul turns to the “Austrian” view of thinkers like Friedrich Hayek — a view Friedman once described as an “atrophied and rigid caricature” — while Paul Ryan, the G.O.P.’s de facto intellectual leader, gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or more precisely from fictional characters in “Atlas Shrugged.”

How did that happen? Friedman, it turns out, was too nuanced and realist a figure for the modern right, which doesn’t do nuance and rejects reality, which has a well-known liberal bias.

One way to think about Friedman is that he was the man who tried to save free-market ideology from itself, by offering an answer to the obvious question: “If free markets are so great, how come we have depressions?”

Until he came along, the answer of most conservative economists was basically that depressions served a necessary function and should simply be endured. Hayek, for example, argued that “we may perhaps prevent a crisis by checking expansion in time,” but “we can do nothing to get out of it before its natural end, once it has come.” Such dismal answers drove many economists into the arms of John Maynard Keynes.

Friedman, however, gave a different answer. He was willing to give a little ground, and admit that government action was indeed necessary to prevent depressions. But the required government action, he insisted, was of a very narrow kind: all you needed was an appropriately active Federal Reserve. In particular, he argued that the Fed could have prevented the Great Depression — with no need for new government programs — if only it had acted to save failing banks and pumped enough reserves into the banking system to prevent a sharp decline in the money supply.

This was, as I said, a move toward realism (although it looks wrong in the light of recent experience). But realism has no place in today’s Republican Party: both Mr. Paul and Mr. Ryan have furiously attacked Ben Bernanke for responding to the 2008 financial crisis by doing exactly what Friedman said the Fed should have done in the 1930s — advice he repeated to the Bank of Japan in 2000. “There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens,” Mr. Ryan lectured Mr. Bernanke, “than debase its currency.”

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of debasing currencies: one of Friedman’s most enduring pieces of straight economic analysis was his 1953 argument in favor of flexible exchange rates, in which he argued that countries finding themselves with excessively high wages and prices relative to their trading partners — like the nations of southern Europe today — would be better served by devaluing their currencies than by enduring years of high unemployment “until the deflation has run its sorry course.” Again, there’s no room for that kind of pragmatism in a party in which many members hanker for a return to the gold standard.

Now, I don’t want to put Friedman on a pedestal. In fact, I’d argue that the experience of the past 15 years, first in Japan and now across the Western world, shows that Keynes was right and Friedman was wrong about the ability of unaided monetary policy to fight depressions. The truth is that we need a more activist government than Friedman was willing to countenance.

The point, however, is that modern conservatism has moved so far to the right that it no longer has room for even small concessions to reality. Friedman tried to save free-market conservatism from itself — but the ideologues who now dominate the G.O.P. are beyond saving.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jesuit at 80: "I Defrock Serve God More Faithfully, Truly, and Universally"

The National Catholic Reporter posted an article July 15, 2013, about Bert Thelen, a Jesuit priest almost 80 years old who is resigning from the order and the priesthood after 45 years of service -- to protest the official church's "world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity."

Father Thelen sees himself drawn to a new calling:  "It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet. It is time to focus on the sacred bond that exists between us and the earth. It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation."

While he says he is de-frocking himself to return to his original baptismal state, what Thelen is really doing is calling attention to the priesthood of all believers and attempting in his remaining years to embody how that priesthood might be lived.

His letter to his friends and colleagues explaining his decision follows.

May the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Peace of the Holy Spirit be with you! I am writing to tell you about what may be the most important decision of my life since entering the Jesuits. With God's help, at the behest of my religious superiors and the patient support and wise encouragement of my CLC group and closest friends, I have decided to leave ordained Jesuit ministry and return to the lay state, the priesthood of the faithful bestowed on me by my Baptism nearly 80 years ago. I do this with confidence and humility, clarity and wonder, gratitude and hope, joy and sorrow. No bitterness, no recrimination, no guilt, no regrets.

It has been a wonderful journey, a surprising adventure, an exploration into the God Who dwells mysteriously in all of our hearts. I will always be deeply grateful to the Society of Jesus for the formation, education, companionship, and ministry it has provided, and to my family for their constant support. I can never thank God enough for the loving and loyal presence in my life of each and every one of you.
 Why am I doing this? How did I reach this decision? I will try to tell you now. That is the purpose of this letter. For about 15 years now, as many of you have noticed, I have had a "Lover's Quarrel" with the Catholic Church. I am a cradle Catholic and grew up as Catholic as anyone can, with Priests and even Bishops in our household, and 17 years of Catholic education at St. Monica's Grade School, Milwaukee Messmer High School, and Marquette University. I took First Vows at Oshkosh in the Society of Jesus at age 25 and was ordained at Gesu Church to the priesthood ten years later in 1968. I have served the Church as a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee, Omaha, and Pine Ridge for 45 years, including 18 years on the Province Staff culminating in my being the Wisconsin Provincial for six years and attending the 34th General Congregation in Rome.
My last 14 years at Creighton and St. John's have been the best years of my life. I have truly enjoyed and flourished serving as pastor of St. John's. I cannot even put into words how graced and loved and supported I have been by the parishioners, parish staff, campus ministry, Ignatian Associates, and CLC members! It is you who have freed, inspired, and encouraged me to the New Life to which I am now saying a strong and joyful "Yes." You have done this by challenging me to be my best self as a disciple of Jesus, to proclaim boldly His Gospel of Love, and to widen the horizons of my heart to embrace the One New World we are called to serve in partnership with each other and our Triune God. It is the Risen Christ Who beckons me now toward a more universal connection with the Cosmos, the infinitely large eco-system we are all part of, the abundance and vastness of what Jesus called "the Reign of God."
Why does this "YES" to embrace the call of our cosmic inter-connectedness mean saying "NO" to ordained ministry? My answer is simple but true. All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. Lasting justice for Earth and all her inhabitants is only possible within this sacred communion of being. We need conversion – conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and even hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as inter-dependent partners , sharing in one Earth-Human community. In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, "Don't Lord it over anyone … serve one another in love." As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment. So, following my call to serve this One World requires me to stop benefiting from the privilege, security, and prestige ordination has given me. I am doing this primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples.
I have become convinced that the Catholic Church will never give up its clerical privilege until and unless we priests (and bishops) willingly step down from our pedestals. Doing this would also put me in solidarity with my friend, Roy Bourgeois, my fellow Jesuit, Fr. Bill Brennan, the late Bernard Cooke, and many other men who have been "de-frocked" by the reigning hierarchy. It will also support the religious and lay women, former Catholics, and gay and lesbian couples marginalized by our church. I want to stand with and for them. I am, if you will, choosing to de-frock myself in order to serve God more faithfully, truly, and universally.
But why leave the Jesuits? Make no mistake about it: the Society of Jesus shares in and benefits from this patriarchal and clerical way of proceeding. We still regard ourselves as the shepherds and those to whom and with whom we minister as sheep. I discovered this painfully when the Society of Jesus decided against having Associate members. We are not prepared for co-membership or even, it seems at times, for collaboration, though we pay lip service to it.  "Father knows best" remains the hallmark of our way of proceeding. I can no longer, in conscience, do that. But I still honor and love my fellow Jesuits who work from that model of power over. It is still where we all are as a company, a Society, a community of vowed religious in the Roman Catholic church. Leaving behind that companionship is not easy for me, but it is the right thing for me to do at this time in my life. When I went through a formal discernment process with my CLC group, one member whose brilliance and integrity I have always admired and whose love and loyalty to the Jesuits is beyond question, said of my decision, "You cannot NOT do this!" He had recognized God's call in me.
A few other considerations may help clarify my path. The Church is in transition – actually in exile. In the Biblical tradition, the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian captivities led to great religious reforms and the creation of renewed covenants. Think of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. I think a similar reform is happening in our Catholic faith (as well as other traditions). We have come through far-reaching, earth-shaking evolutionary changes, and a new (Universal) Church as well as a new (One) World is emerging. My decision is a baby step in that Great Emergence, a step God is asking me to take.
Consider this. Being a Lay Catholic has sometimes been caricatured as "Pray, pay, and obey." Of course, that is a caricature, an exaggeration, a jibe. But it does point to a real problem. Recently, the hierarchical church mandated the so-called revision of the Roman Missal without consulting the People of God. It was both a foolish and a self-serving effort to increase the authority of Ordained men, damaging and even in some ways taking away the "Pray" part of "Pray, pay, and obey." No wonder more and more Catholics are worshipping elsewhere, and some enlightened priests feel compromised in their roles. I, for one, feel that this so-called renewal , though licit, is not valid. It is not pleasing to God, and I feel compromised in trying to do it.
Now, consider this. All of this liturgical, ecclesial, and religious change is located in and strongly influenced by what both science and spirituality have revealed as happening to our world, our planet, our universe. The very earth we are rooted and grounded in, as well as the air we breathe and the water we drink, are being damaged and destroyed even beyond (some say) our capacity to survive. And, as Fr. John Surette, S.J., has so wisely observed, "Injustice for the human and destruction of Earth's ecosystem are not two separate injustices. They are one." Biocide is even more devastating than genocide, because it also kills future inhabitants of our precious Earth.
It is time. It is time to abandon our refusal to see that our very environment is central to the survival and well being of ALL earthlings. It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet. It is time to focus on the sacred bond that exists between us and the earth. It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation. It is time for a new vision of a universal Church whose all-inclusive justice and unconditional love, an expression of Christ consciousness and the work of the Holy Spirit, empowers ALL and can lead to a future that preserves the true right to life of all of God's creatures. This includes future generations who will bless us for allowing them to live, evolve, and flourish. Can't you hear them crying out, "I want to live, I want to grow, I want to be, I want to know?"
In light of all this, how can I not respond to the call both Isaiah and Jesus heard, the call of our Baptism? "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring Good News to the oppressed." All creation will be freed, and all people will know the freedom and glory of the Children of God. Yes, Lord, I will go. Please send me.
And that is why I am leaving Jesuit priesthood. Since first vows I have always thought and hoped and prayed that I would live and die in this least Society of Jesus. But now, something unexpected! A real surprise! I HAVE lived and died in the Society of Jesus, but, now, nearly 80, I have been raised to new life. I am born again – into a much larger world, a much newer creation. I have greatly benefited from the spiritual freedom given in and by the Society of Jesus. I feel no longer chained, limited, bound, by the shackles of a judicial, institutional, clerical, hierarchical system. As St. Paul once reminded the early Christians, "It is for freedom that you have been set free." And as St. Peter, the first Pope, learned when he said to Jesus, "You know that I love you," love is all about surrender and servanthood.
Thank you for your attention to this self presentation. I am grateful that you have followed me in the journey described here, and I am sorry for whatever sadness, disappointment, or hurt this may have caused you. But what I have written here is my truth, and I can't not do it! If you want to discuss this with me, ask questions, or give me feedback, I welcome your response, either by letter, e-mail or phone. Please pray for me, as I do for all of you, the beloved of my heart and soul.
Yours in the Risen Christ, Bert Thelen

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pope Francis: We Have Not Done "Everything the Holy Spirit Was Asking" at Vatican II

An article posted this morning in the National Catholic Reporter by publisher Thomas C. Fox says Vatican Radio reports that in a homily today at the communal residence where he lives, Pope Francis called the Second Vatican Council "a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit."  Francis lamented that fifty years after Vatican II, some Catholics were still resisting implementing it.

This, of course, is music to the ears of progressive Catholics around the globe.

The NCR article follows:

Pope Francis on Tuesday offered his most explicit support in his young papacy to the work of the Second Vatican Council, saying it was "a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit." He made his remarks in a homily at a Mass celebrated at the Santa Marta residence inside the Vatican.

He criticized those who resist change and "wish to turn back the clock" and "to tame the Holy Spirit," asking if, 50 years after the council, "we have we done everything the Holy Spirit was asking us to do during the Council?"

The answer is "no," Francis said, according to a Vatican radio report.

"We celebrate this anniversary, we put up a monument but we don't want it to upset us. We don't want to change and what's more there are those who wish to turn the clock back." This, he went on, "is called stubbornness and wanting to tame the Holy Spirit."

Francis' homily was centered on the theme of the Holy Spirit and our resistance to it. It took its inspiration from the first reading of the day, which was the story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen who described his accusers as stubborn people who were always resisting the Holy Spirit.

He said: "The Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the church forward." He said it's wrong to try to tame the Spirit, adding, "the Holy Spirit is the strength of God, it's what gives us the strength to go forward, but many find this upsetting and prefer the comfort of the familiar."

Nowadays, he went on, "everybody seems happy about the presence of the Holy Spirit but it's not really the case and there is still that temptation to resist it."

He concluded his homily by urging we not resist the pull of the Holy Spirit. "Submit to the Holy Spirit," he said, "which comes from within us and makes go forward along the path of holiness."

Friday, April 12, 2013

What If God Were...Just a Stranger on the Bus, Trying to Find His Way Home?

In this 2008 photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, second from left, travels on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio, was known for taking the subway and mingling with the poor of Buenos Aires while archbishop. (Pablo Leguizamon/Associated Press)

It has been thirty days since Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013.  And thirty days since he stunned everyone by announcing he would be called Pope Francis.

Not only the first to be so named in the history of Roman Catholicism, but also the first to say that his name was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi and the saint's lifelong commitment to the poor, the marginalized and the innate sanctity of all God's creatures.

And for thirty days, I have held my breath -- and my tongue! -- hoping ... against hope ... that the most promising new pope since John XXIII would not disappoint, would actually turn out to be the genuine breath of fresh air that the church has needed desperately, for too many decades.

After railing for years against the relentless reversal of Vatican II -- by Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI -- I think it's time for me to say that the election of Pope Francis has good chance of being an achievement that I never expected the current College of Cardinals to deliver:  it opens up opportunities for the Catholic church that I feared I would not see in my lifetime.

As I watched TV in the moments leading up to Bergoglio's election, I thought to myself, half-joking, that the seagull perched stubbornly atop the Sistine Chapel smokestack might mean that the Holy Spirit was watching over the proceedings inside.  Maybe that thought wasn't as whimsical as it seemed.

Of course, the story of Pope Francis will be whether he can capitalize on those opportunities and bring them to fruition.  But the first thirty days have been an impressive beginning -- impressive enough that I dare to hope for more.

The most moving first impression was on the balcony, right after Francis was introduced to the waiting world.  When he asked the crowd in St. Peter's square to bless him, before he would bless them, I dissolved into tears.  It was exactly the right thing for him to do -- and a telling departure from the self-important, imperial papacies of the last fifty years.

And the hits just kept on coming.  His insistence on not lording it over his fellow cardinals.  His refusal of elaborate liturgical brocade for his first papal blessing.  Paying his own bill at the place he lodged during the conclave.  Declining, so far at least, to live in the elaborate papal apartment or use the papal limo or ride in the bulletproof popemobile.  Insisting that he be able to touch actual human beings physically, even if it causes his security staff conniptions.

The simple attire for the first papal blessing was only the beginning of a liturgical modesty and warmth that contrasted sharply from the pomp of his predecessors -- and from the totalitarian worship of rubrics that they tried to impose on Catholic churches everywhere.  Might we actually be witnessing a return to the style of worship that Vatican II proclaimed as the baptismal birthright of every Christian?

This Franciscan style of liturgizing reached its most poignant expression to date on Holy Thursday, when the new pope washed the feet of two young women (leaving the rubricists aghast) and a Muslim (leaving the ecclesial traditionalists aghast).  If Pope Francis keeps this up, he may well repeal the suppression of liturgy begun by John Paul II and pursued to extreme by Benedict XVI.

As several commentators remind us, it is way too soon to know if Francis will recontextualize any of the rigid dogmatism that has characterized the Roman church in the decades since Vatican II.  As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly preached the narrow moral strictures that his predecessors declared official church positions.  So progress in any of those areas would be a pleasant surprise.

But on at least one controversial topic, Pope Francis does promise to be his own man:  in contrast to the last two popes, who condemned Latin American liberation theology, he appears to be a fan of it and of its preferential option for the poor.  If that continues through his papacy, the quest for justice and equality will at least set the church on a much better path than it's been on for a long time.  And that has the potential to at least diminish the preponderance of narrow moral strictures in what the church preaches to the world.

Given what we have learned about Bergoglio in Argentina, along with his choice of the name Francis, we have reason to hope that a commitment to the poor, the ordinary, the marginalized are at the core of who Pope Francis is.

Among the many stories and images of Jorge Bergoglio in the years before he was elected as Pope Francis, few are as enduring and endearing as his penchant for mingling with the poor, which included hanging out in slums and getting around Buenos Aires using its public transit system.

I don't know where the photo above first appeared, but it was featured in coverage of Bergolio shortly after the College of Cardinals elected him -- suggesting it was one of the things they found so attractive about him.

I notice something about the photo that apparently no one else has: What is striking about it is how much the scene was anticipated by the lyrics of "One of Us," a song released by singer Joan Osborne in 1995.  (A version is available on You Tube.)  Some of the lyrics bear an uncanny relationship to this part of Pope Francis's history:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

The point is not, let me hasten to say, that Pope Francis (then or now) should be considered "God...on the bus."

It is, rather, that one of the ways Bergoglio has experienced God's presence most intensely was by sharing space with the strangers on the buses and subways of Buenos Aires.  Doing that was his quiet but poignant way of personifying and proclaiming the message of Jesus, "Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me."

That clearly is a central tenet of liberation theology -- a teaching that the church needs to hear and take to heart on every continent.  If Francis succeeds in taking that spirit global, he will have moved the Catholic church in the direction of St. Francis of Assisi more than any pope before.

If Francis prevails in that, the result may not be precisely the church that Vatican II envisioned.  But it will embody a significant part of that vision.  And a church that goes there will be more open to the present and to God's lure into the future -- and less likely to worship what it was in the past.

Let's just say that this is my personal prayer for Pope Francis.  And from what I have seen and heard over the last thirty days, I'm sure I'm not alone.  That's a very rewarding feeling.  For fifty years we have wandered in a desert made by derelict, deficient popes.  It would be so refreshing to see the church back on fertile ground.

One final irony about the lyrics to "One of Us."  The last verse reads:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
'cept for the pope maybe in Rome

If things go well with Pope Francis, God will not be lonely up in heaven, waiting for the pope to phone from Rome.  Because God will find new companions on every bus and every subway and in every gathering of human beings.  Because those who gather will realize that God is in them and with them and among them.  And "Thy kingdom come" will be not just a prayer, but a lived experience.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Georgetown Senior Fellow Says American Catholics Should Consider Resigning Too

A non-Catholic friend in the San Francisco Bay area, who knows my passion for getting Rome to end its treason toward Vatican II, alerted me to an excellent op-ed piece posted yesterday in the New York Times.

Paul Elie, a senior fellow in Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, suggests that if Pope Benedict XVI could resign from the papacy, U.S. Catholics who still go to church should consider resigning from their pews for at least one Sunday -- or maybe even several Sundays.

I think it's an excellent proposal.  And I also share Elie's conviction that "change in the church can happen, even dramatically" (italics mine).

But if the moribund College of Cardinals follows its track record since the death of Pope John XXIII and elects yet another pope hell-bent on reversing the Second Vatican Council, the resignation from Catholic pews should last at least as long as that papacy.

Here's Paul Elie's op-ed:

AT 8 p.m. last night in Vatican City, Benedict XVI resigned the papacy. Now American Catholics should consider resigning too.

The conventional wisdom has it that Benedict’s resignation sharply reduced the aura of the papal office, showed a tender realism about old age, and made clear that even ancient Catholic practices could be changed. That is all true, but the event’s significance is more visceral than that. It has caught the mood of the church, especially in North America.

Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.

So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.

We are in the third week of Lent, a six-week season of reflection and personal sacrifice when Christians prepare for Easter by taking stock of their religious lives. In recent centuries Roman Catholics have observed Lent by giving up a habit or pleasure, whether red meat, chocolate, soap operas or Facebook, to simplify their lives and regain their independence from worldly attractions — their religious freedom, if you like.

Two years ago, Stephen Colbert gave up Catholicism itself. As the comedian told it, he swore off Catholicism on Ash Wednesday and made it as far as Good Friday, when he went on a “Catholic bender.” His riff inverted the old saying that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Mr. Colbert beat the pope to the punch.

In traditional parlance, Benedict’s resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter “vacant.” So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend.

We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly.

For the Catholic Church, it has been “all bad news, all the time” since Benedict took office in 2005: a papal insult to Muslims; a papal embrace of a Holocaust denier; molesting by priests and cover-ups by their superiors. When the Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned on Monday amid reports of “inappropriate” conduct toward priests in the 1980s, the routine was wearingly familiar. It’s enough to make any Catholic yearn to leave the whole mess for someone else to clean up.

Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is a theologian. He would not have stepped down if he did not think he was setting a sound precedent: a resignation prompted by physical, not institutional, weakness. That he felt free to resign suggests that he thinks the church is doing fine. But countless ordinary Catholics know otherwise.

That is why this Sunday, I won’t be at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Downtown Brooklyn, even though I love it there — a welcoming, open-minded, authentically religious place.

Instead, I’ll be at the Brooklyn Meeting of the Quakers, who have long invited volunteers from our church to serve food to the poor.

Or I’ll be at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, an Episcopal congregation that hosted the Occupy movement’s relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy.

Or I’ll go to the Zen Mountain Monastery at Mount Tremper, in the Catskills.

Or I’ll be in Washington, with colleagues who attend Shabbat services at Georgetown, the first American Catholic university and the first (four decades ago) to engage a full-time rabbi.

Or I’ll knock on the door of the Masjid Ibadul-Rahman, a mosque on my block, or the Zion Shiloh Baptist Church, across the street, or L’Église Baptiste d’Expression Française, on the corner.

I hope and expect to return to the Oratory church the following Sunday. But I can’t be sure. To some degree, it’s out of my hands, a response to a calling.

A temporary resignation would be a fitting Lenten observance. It would help believers to purify and deepen our faith in the light of our neighbors’ — “to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness,” as the American writer Flannery O’Connor put it. It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.

And it might dispel the resignation we feel. Most ordinary believers have given up hope that the church will change its ways. But Benedict’s resignation reminds us of a truth we have known all along: change in the church can happen, even dramatically. If so hidebound an institution as the papacy can be changed, what can’t be?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

At Least Three Catholic Officials See Latest HHS Compromise as a Step Forward

My posting on February 6th wondered if the Obama Administration's latest olive branch on contraception coverage would prove to be a win for Catholic progressives.

Well, as The National Catholic Reporter notes, several of the most conservative bishops continued to dig in their heels on the need for a "conscience exception" for any employer -- religious or not -- who wants to veto employees' rights to contraception coverage.

Their predictable response not withstanding, it is encouraging that at least three U.S. church officials have called the most recent administration position a positive step in the right direction.

Moreover, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the current president of the U.S. bishops conference, felt the need to nuance his somewhat negative February 7th statement on behalf of the conference with a February 8th statement on his archdiocesan blog that the bishops had not rejected the new proposal and that they would "take seriously the Administration's invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments."  So at least officially, the bishops and the Administration are still talking.

Two of the church officials who spoke positively about the new accommodation for non-profits were bishops.

One was Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, FL.  His remarks are especially significant because he's also a member of the board of the Catholic Health Association, which represents the Catholic-affiliated hospitals in the United States.  NCR reports that, writing on February 9th, Lynch said:

"Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself.  One would be hard put to find any other segment of the American public whose concerns about the Affordable Health Care Act have attempted to be dealt with than those of the Catholic bishops."

Lynch added that the bishops should "consider ourselves lucky" that the Administration is "still talking to us."

Also weighing in with positive remarks was Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, WA.  In a letter to his diocese on February 11th, Cupich said, "This latest response of the government appears to provide some new openings, which we need to explore and for which we should express appreciation."  He added that he was "confident that we can find a way forward."

The third church official to value the Administration's olive branch was the president of the Catholic Health Association, Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan.  She differed with the bishops by supporting the Affordable Care Act, but also lead in trying to get the contraception policy modified in a way that would better allow Catholic institutions not to actively countermand the bishops' official position on contraception.

Keehan said in a statement February 13th that while her organization was still evaluating the HHS proposal, some of the latest provisions were "a great relief our members and many others.  CHA looks forward to working with our members, the leadership of the Bishops' Conference and the Administration to complete this process."

Keehan certainly qualifies as a Catholic progressive.  Hopefully other Catholic progressives will follow her in valuing the latest policy proposal as one which protects the bishops' legitimate concerns without allowing them to trample on the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of the employees of church-related institutions.

Catholic progressives could also make a contribution by insisting, again, that a "conscience exception" for any other employer is neither morally justified nor Constitutional.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Is Latest Olive Branch on Contraception Coverage a Win for Catholic Progressives?

On February 1, 2013, the Obama administration offered a new olive branch to the Catholic Church in the controversy over the contraception coverage mandated for all health insurance policies by the Affordable Care Act.

In an analysis posted the same day, Washington Post Opinion Writer E.J. Dionne Jr. argued that "The decision ought to be taken by the nation's Catholic bishops as a victory, because it is."

But what Dionne's full analysis shows is that the government's latest proposal may well be a more important victory for "Catholic progressives" -- because what persuaded Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was not the bishops' disproportionate, hysterical ranting about an attack on their religious liberty, but rather the Catholic progressives' concern that Sebelius had defined the term "religious organization" too narrowly and failed to accommodate religious institutions that self-insure.

As Dionne recounts it, the original rules that Sebelius offered said that "If a religious organization did not have 'the inculcation of religious values' as its purpose and did not primarily employ or serve those who shared the faith, it got no exclusion at all."  By contrast, says Dionne, "The HHS rules announced Friday scrapped this offensive definition in favor of long-established language in the IRS code."  By substituting the existing language of the Internal Revenue Code, Sebelius in effect broadened the term "religious organization" to include all Catholic entities doing charitable work and probably even those promoting social justice.

Dionne notes that Sebelius has also addressed the concern that many Catholic institutions self-insure and did not want to pay for "any contraception coverage to which they object on religious grounds."  The remedy for that concern is that employees of such institutions who want contraception coverage will be able to get "stand-alone coverage from a third party" without anything being paid by the institution -- "covered by small offsets in the fees insurers will have to pay to participate in the new exchanges where their policies will be on sale."

I did not share the Catholic progressives' view that the original definition was offensive.  But I did agree that it was unlikely to fly politically.  Coming to the same conclusion, Sebelius gave Obama and Catholics a way out of the controversy.

So will the new proposal prove to be a victory for Catholic progressives?  I say maybe, because the Catholic progressives don't get the final say on this.  A few future developments may prove critical:

First of all, how will the U.S. bishops react?  If they deem the latest from Sebelius to be acceptable, the controversy will end based on terms pushed primarily by Catholic progressives.  So yes, a gain for them.

Second, however, if they do find the latest proposal agreeable, what rationale will the bishops give for their shift?  Dionne argues that "The church made a mistake in arguing its case on the grounds of 'religious liberty.'  By inflating their legitimate desire for accommodation into a liberty claim, the bishops implied that the freedom not to pay for birth control rose to the same level as, say, the freedom to worship or to preach the faith.  This led to wild rhetorical excesses..."  If the bishops try to twist the olive branch into a victory for their 'religious liberty' position, they will be distorting what the Catholic progressives worked for and achieved.

And third, whatever response and rationale the bishops give, how does this play out among ordinary Catholics?  Although it was bogus, theologically and constitutionally, some bishops got some Catholics to buy their 'religious liberty' line:  even Catholics who have never accepted the church's official teaching on contraception somehow felt that their church was being attacked and its religious freedom was being violated.  The best outcome would be that most ordinary Catholics end up understanding that that was never the case--and that Obama has corrected the only inadequacies of the original rules:  the overly narrow definition of "religious organization," and how to keep religious institutions that self-insure from paying for contraception to which they object on religious grounds.

So, as they say, time will tell.  If Catholic progressives do indeed have a victory, they will still need to remember that final victories are very, very rare -- in politics, constitutional law or theology.