On Re-appropriating My Priesthood

 

Ordination[1]

I’m so appalled at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the threats it poses to everyone and everything I care about:  the environment and climate chaos, avoidance of nuclear war, victims of torture and false imprisonment, Muslims, drone attacks, wealth disparities, women’s reproductive rights, people of color, the LGBT community, our public school system, the right to privacy, human rights in general, labor unions – my children and my grandchildren.

In fact, as I’ve written recently, a Trump presidency portends the dawning of a Fourth Reich, where the victims of incineration will be not only Jews, but all of us, as the White House teems with climate change deniers whose policies threaten all species and the continuity of human life itself.

So the question is, what can we do about it? What talent does each of us have to respond to Trumpism? As parents and grandparents, teachers, writers, counsellors, school board officials, musicians, public speakers, church members, and public citizens, what does each of us have to offer these unprecedentedly dangerous times.

My own answer is my priesthood.

Only gradually and reluctantly have I come to that conclusion. After all, 40 years ago I exited the Catholic priesthood, got married and raised a family of three outstanding children. I remained active in my local church. And as a professor at Berea College and associate of Costa Rica’s Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), I continued my role as a theologian with a doctoral degree from Rome’s Academia Alfonsiana. For years I taught in a Latin American Studies Program that took students to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In those capacities, I wrote books and articles and offered courses connected with liberation theology.  However, I resigned myself to my role as lay person – a member of the church’s “loyal opposition.”

And the opposition was absolutely called for. Over the years I’ve found myself dismayed as two consecutive regressive popes (John Paul II and Benedict XV) waged a vicious campaign against liberation theology and systematically removed from the hierarchy and Catholic seminaries progressives and theologians like me. The result over the two generations has been the production of a largely reactionary Catholic clergy who long for the good old days before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

So as a lay person, I’ve often found myself sitting passively in my pew while rebelling internally against the reintroduction into the Catholic liturgy Latinisms and even Latin itself. I’ve listened uncomfortably to well-intentioned priests offer ill-prepared pious platitudes in their homilies rather than reflections connected with the historical Jesus and his relationship to the problems that householders like me face in our private and public lives. And, to speak truly, I was blaming them unfairly. After all, how could they possibly offer what their retrenched seminary training prevented them from receiving?

Still, it struck me as ironic that hundreds of people in my parish come together for about 2 hours each Sunday to reflect on their most dearly held (Gospel) values, but come away having barely tapped into the unlimited power for changing their personal lives and the world itself that those values supply. What a waste, I thought – not only for the parishioners directly involved, but for the world.

Then came a breath of fresh air reminiscent of Pope John XXIII’s famous “opening of windows” more than 50 years ago. Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis – a man intent on recovering the spirit of Vatican II. Deeply influenced by the liberation theology his predecessors had warred against, he published “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.) and then his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (L.S.). Both publications were bolstered by unprecedentedly honest and refreshing public statements. (Who can forget his question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”)  Francis not only called the church to profound reform; he called the world itself to a “bold cultural revolution.”

As for church reform, Francis called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the Church to embark on a “new path” (J.G. 1, 25) on which things cannot be left as they presently are (25). He called for new ways of relating to God, for new narratives and new paradigms (74). He wanted new customs, ways of doing things, new times, schedules, and language (27) — with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159).

Despite (lamentably) continuing to exclude women from the priesthood, the pope ordered the church to expand their roles in church life.  He recognized women as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

Clearly, then, the pope was speaking (as he said) not primarily to pastors and bishops, but to everyone (33). Decisions about change, he said, should be guided by the principle of decentralization (16, 32). They should be made at the parish level, because parishes are more flexible than Rome or the local chancery, and more sensitive to the specific needs of local people (28). The inventiveness of local communities should not be restrained, he said, but limited only by the openness and creativity of the pastor and local community (28). Such decisions should be respected by local bishops (31).

As for connecting the gospel with world issues, Pope Francis identified the struggle for social justice as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). He saw “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (192, 213). He also completely rejected war as incapable of combatting violence caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Pope Francis rejected unfettered markets and the “trickle down” ideologies as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

In Laudato Si’ the pope issued an urgent call to the Church and the world to address issues connected with human-caused climate chaos.  In this the entire encyclical (see my book, Understanding Laudato Si’: a Discussion Guide) might be seen as a complete rejection of Trumpism and of the entire Republican Party’s denial of that problem.

So, once again: what to do about it?

Experience shows that the anti-Vatican II clergy resistant to Pope Francis remains incapable of responding either to the latter’s Apostolic Exhortation (J.G.) or to his eco-encyclical (L.S.). Much less has it demonstrated a willingness to address the issues of political-economy, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, war, torture, etc.  raised by the emergence of Trumpism. (Once again, it is wrong to blame the clergy for this. Their training has made effective response impossible.)

So I’ve decided to do something about it myself. I’ve decided to reactivate my priesthood.

Honestly, I have to admit that the process of doing so began about 5 years ago following my retirement after 40 years of teaching at Berea College. It was then that I set goals for myself. One of them was an ill-formed, vague resolve to “reclaim my priesthood.”

As a preliminary step, I started a blog. Its center piece was the publication of a “Sunday Homily” each week. The reflections tried to connect world events, personal, and family problems with each Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Eventually, my homilies were picked up by OpEdNews – a completely secular progressive news source run by a Jewish editor. Over the years, I’ve published more than 200 such homilies covering Catholic lectionary readings for all three liturgical cycles. The result has been the creation of a kind of cyber community of readers that averages 1600 views of each reflection every week.

Now, in view of the crisis of Trumpism, I’ve decided that my contribution to resistance will be to translate that cyber community into a real-time assembly of faith. It will actually attempt do something to implement Pope Francis’ summons to church reform, and address in particular issues connected with climate chaos.

What I’m proposing is not a Protestant or even an ecumenical gathering. Rather my call is to an alternative Catholic “parish” in my town. Of course, this is not unusual; most towns of any size have more than one Catholic parish. Though specifically Catholic, all people will be welcome – Catholics, Protestants, atheists . . . In particular, “drop-outs” from our local community of faith are encouraged to join.

I imagine the gathering will be very simple – nothing of a show or performance. Rather, people will gather in my home (to begin with). We’ll sing or chant for a while, read the week’s liturgical selections, and share reflections. Afterwards we’ll gather at the dining room table for a brief Eucharistic breaking of bread followed immediately by a pot-luck meal. The week’s meeting will conclude with a planning session outlining activities for the coming week to resist the inroads of Trumpism.

All of this reminds me of the activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church” in the 1930s when Lutherans and others decided they had to do something to resist Hitler’s fascism. What I’m proposing here is an analogue, where people of faith call on their tradition to confront fascism’s re-emergence.

I’m convinced that only resistance fortified by deep faith can effectively combat that reincarnation. And even if only two or three join me in this proposal, I’m determined to go through with it. After all Jesus did say: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20).

“Laudato Si’” and Its Preferential Option for the Poor (Part Three): the Guiding Principle for Restructuring the World Economy

option for poor

This is the last installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. It attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.”  This third part addresses the meaning and centrality of that option.

In his critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it (reviewed in Part Two of this series), Pope Francis called explicitly for “structural change” in the world economy.  He said, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”

But what “structural change” does the pope have in mind?

Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ offer the answer. Their “preferential option for the poor” provides the guiding principle and turns the present economic order exactly on its head. This implies that if the present order is possible, so is its opposite.

That is to say that the present neo-liberal order is structured according to a “preferential option for the rich.”  Its sponsoring question is how can we make sure that the banks, corporations, and 1% prosper? Economists explain such concern by various “trickle-down theories.”  If priority is accorded the welfare of the rich, the theorists say, the wealth produced will trickle down creating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”  [The pope rejects such theories out-of-hand as historically disproven. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he even calls them homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59).]

By way of contrast, the pope’s “preferential option for the poor” begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?

Laudato Si’ goes even further. It expands moral concern beyond human beings to all forms of life. It asks how we can insure the survival of the planet in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.

None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.

It does mean, however, controlling them according to the principle some have expressed in the words, “as much market as possible and as much planning as necessary.” This means maximizing market forces, but controlling them as necessitated by prioritization of the needs of the poor including the environment – once again by the preferential option for the poor.

In practice this entails at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.

Impossible you say? Not at all. To repeat: if economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to prioritize the needs and rights of the poor and the environment.

That’s the Global South hope and conviction Laudato Si’ embodies: another world is indeed possible.

Conclusion   

Will Laudato Si’ have its desired effect? That, of course remains to the seen. However, it undeniably has in Pope Francis a powerful proponent.

That is, despite remaining Stalinist skepticism, Pope Francis might well be the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, he is the planet’s most influential moral leader. What empower him, of course, are not the military divisions in which Josef Stalin placed confidence, but his extraordinary consciousness of the unity of all creation expressed repeatedly in his every pronouncement and especially in his recent encyclical. What sets him apart from the Obamas and Putins of the world is his equally unusual courage, compassion, charisma, and credibility.

Additionally, the pope has surpassing constituency. He heads a community of 1.2 billion followers. And this does not even count the untold millions of non-Catholics who admire him and his thought leadership.

With such support, the powerful message of Laudato Si’, and his plans to bring that message to the U.N. and U.S. Congress in September, as well as to influence the Climate Summit in Paris next September, who knows what changes will result? Who knows how he will influence the U.S. general elections in 2016?

In other words, Francis may stand on the brink of surpassing the stature of Leo XIII and John Paul II in terms of changing the world.

Defenders of the old order are already shaking in their boots.

Sunday Homily: “Lazarus come forth!” Pope Francis Brings Jesus Back to Life

Lazarus

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040614.cfm

A few weeks ago, Fortune Magazine identified Pope Francis as first among the World’s “Fifty Best Leaders.” President Obama did not even make the list. Bono and President Clinton were among the top ten.

Whatever the magazine’s reasons for selecting the pope, it’s clear that the “Francis Effect,” is real. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics say they have increased their church donations since the new pope took office. Francis has brought the Catholic Church back from the dead. More importantly, he has returned to life the Jesus of the gospels whom conservatives have long since hijacked and buried – the very one our world’s poor majority needs as never before.

That’s relevant this fifth Sunday of Lent where our readings have Ezekiel coining the highly political metaphor of God’s “raising the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist’s presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), Pope Francis embraces not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To repeat, he actually revivifies Jesus and the Gospel. The pope does so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 35 years. It’s the version, the pope strongly implies, that has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor, not to the rich whom the conservatives prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Pope Francis strongly implies that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is was chillingly represented last week by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

The Joy of the Gospel makes it clear that no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan and the pope are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, Pope Francis calls him back to life. He stands before Jesus’ grave and shouts “Come Forth!” Even Fortune Magazine recognizes the resulting miracle.

Consider the Pope’s anti-conservative incantation that brings Jesus back to life. It runs like this:

• Wealth does not belong to the rich, but to the world’s poor (JG 57, 184).

• But the world economy as now structured concentrates wealth among an ever-shrinking minority of the rich (56).

• Wealth must therefore be redistributed (189, 204,215).

• Such redistribution must take place by government intervention in the free market, which (in contradiction to failed “trickle-down” theory) cannot by itself eliminate poverty (54).

• The rich who are unwilling to redistribute wealth to its true owners (the poor) are thieves (57, 189).

• More than that, they are murderers, since the world economy as presently configured is homicidal (58).

• This is a question of being pro-life (213).

• Favoring life certainly includes concern for the unborn (213).

• But “. . . defense of the unborn is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right” (213).

• Human rights include the right to food and shelter, education, health care, employment , and a just wage (191, 192)

• Respecting human rights involves renunciation of war and preparation for war (60).

• It also connects with environmental stewardship – defense of soil, insects, birds, fish, and the seas (215).

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews the faith of so many of us who had given up on the church.

Our faith is renewed because we recognize in Francis’ Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

What should we do as a result of encountering the Jesus Francis has resurrected?

• Be bold in appropriating the vision of Pope Francis that is not at all idiosyncratic within the Catholic tradition. In fact, it represents the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII to Vatican II and was even articulated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

• Accordingly and courageously incorporate into progressive political discourse the language and powerful ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It can move people today just as it did in the times of Ezekiel and Jesus.

• Join Francis in refusing to cede the field of religion to the reactionary forces of neo-liberal conservatism.

• Expose that conservatism for the destructive fraud it is.

• More particularly, expose Paul Ryan and other Bible thumping Republicans as the heretics they are as they defend the interests of the rich and starve the poor in the name of the Gospel.

• Insist that our pastors get on board with Pope Francis in universalizing his pro-life vision to foreground issues of hunger, war and peace, capital punishment, full employment, universal health care, affordable housing, environmental protection. . . .

Francis reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo the pope’s cry: “Jesus, come forth!”

The Church’s Disastrous Domestication of Jesus (Sunday Homily)

King of the Universe

Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/112413.cfm

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” The contrast between the feast’s grandiose title and the readings prescribed for the occasion illustrate a basic reason behind the irrelevance of the church (and Jesus) to the post-modern world. It’s irrelevant to the social and economic transformations necessary to redeem the church’s overwhelmingly Third World membership from globalized oppression.

The contrast I’m referring to involves the great makeover of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar of the exploitative status quo.

Let me put it this way: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire – the one who promised a new heaven and earth belonging to the simple and poor, and who was executed as a terrorist by Rome – was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Following that transformation, kings and popes (now themselves transformed into gaudy temporal rulers) claimed to govern by divine right on behalf of Jesus as his representatives and vicars. In this way, the poor and oppressed (who then and now constitute the world’s majority) lost their paradigmatic leader, example and advocate. Jesus became instead a key part of the apparatus oppressing them.

Reza Aslan’s recent best-seller, Zealot, attempts to rescue the revolutionary historical Jesus from the distortions of the royal classes just mentioned. Aslan connects his salvage project specifically with today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. In doing so, the author pays particular attention to Jesus’ cross, to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,” and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

According to Aslan, all three – cross, inscription and dialog – mark Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary “terrorist” rather than a domesticated upholder of the given order. That terrorist remains as threatening to today’s dominant empire, the U.S.A., as he was to imperial Rome. So he continues to be erased from history and by “feasts” like today that mask his true identity.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. How could it have been otherwise, Aslan asks? After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, he proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

And, no, the whole world wasn’t watching either. As scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan observes, Jesus would have represented hardly a blip on the screen of Pontius Pilate. And Jews would have averted their eyes from the spectacle depicted in this morning’s gospel. They wouldn’t want to see “one more good Jew” suffering the fate of so many heroic patriots.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.). By then the Romans had utterly defeated the Jews, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple as well as slaughtered the city’s population including practically all of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ messianic campaign. Virtually the only Christians left standing were foreigners – gentiles living in population centers like Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Few of these had any understanding of or sympathy for Judaism much less for Jewish politics and its liberation movements.

Besides that, in the war’s aftermath, both Jews and Christians sought to distance themselves from the socio-political expectations that had brought on the disaster of the Jewish War. So Judaism tried to transform itself from a Temple-centered religion to one focused on the local synagogue and rabbinic teaching – both overwhelmingly concerned with simply preserving the culture and identity of a people in diaspora.

For their part, Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their membership.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

Loss of the radical revolutionary Jesus is not a trivial matter in terms of Christianity relevance to a world ruled by a nation that styles itself as Rome’s worthy successor. Like its ancient archetype, the U.S. (and a majority of first-world Christians) found the historical Jesus so threatening, that it determined that Jesus’ followers deserved the same fate as their crucified Master. For this we have the evidence of the war that the U.S. fought against liberation theology when it first emerged following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).

Liberation theology committed the unforgiveable sin represented by this homily. It was guilty of connecting the Jesus of history described by scholars like Aslan to post-colonial independence movements and struggles against the neo-colonialism spearheaded by the U.S. and its oligarchical clients in the Third World.

In that struggle Pope John Paul II and his henchman, Josef Ratzinger, threw in their lot with a neo-imperial Ronald Reagan. It was deja-vu all over again: Reagan as Pilate and J.P.II and Ratzinger as the temple priesthood. It was the deja-vu of the church melding its interests with Rome towards the end of the 4th century.

More specifically, the two reactionary popes looked the other way and actively supported Reagan’s policies that assassinated hundreds of thousands of Christians (200,000 in Guatemala alone!) who found the radical Jesus threateningly relevant to their struggles in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

To balance liberation theology’s threat, Reagan patronized Evangelical Christians who eventually morphed into the Tea Party. It finds Aslan’s understanding of Jesus anathema. Meanwhile, John Paul II and Ratzinger “cleaned house,” eliminating every single progressive bishop from the hierarchy and transforming seminaries into hot houses to nurture a pre-Vatican II reactionary clergy.

Recently Pope Francis delivered a long-winded, very general and content-less speech to the National Council of Bishops in Brazil. That group used to head a church that was a hot-bed of liberation theology I’ve been describing here. The term was never mentioned in the new pope’s remarks. Instead, he presented John Paul II and Pope Ratzinger as champions of Vatican II.

He’ll have to do better than that to fulfill his aspiration towards making the church relevant to the poor he professes to care so much about.

He’ll have to confess the Church’s sins against liberation theology and revive the cult of the historical Jesus – instead of the depoliticized imperial “King of the Universe” today’s feast calls to mind.

Why the New Pope Should Resign: The Pedophilia Syndrome

ChristianVonWernich

Until yesterday’s election of Pope Francis I, I must confess I doubted the ability of the Holy Spirit to influence the election of a successor to recently resigned Benedict XVI. After all, Benedict and his predecessor had so stacked the College of Cardinals that the likelihood of a progressive or reformer being elected seemed impossible. That is, all of the papabile were clones of the previous two popes – all to a man, opponents of women’s ordination, artificial contraception, and of liberation theology. The patriarchy had defeated, it seemed, the very Spirit of Jesus.

However, as they say, the Holy Spirit operates in strange ways. Evidently, she concluded, “I’ll let them elect a clone of John Paul II if they like. But then I’ll take over and allow the scandalous crimes of that clone to become evident. As a result, he’ll have to resign. Then in desperation, the church will turn to a real reformer – this time chosen from outside the ranks of the College of Cardinals – perhaps even a feminine spirit like mine.”

Does that seem so crazy? Let’s move one step at a time. Before thinking about who the next pope should be, or where she should come from, here is the reason for Francis I to abdicate:

To begin with, he shouldn’t resign because he’s ultimately bad for Argentina and Latin America. That is, despite what they’re saying in the media, Cardinal Bergoglio was bad for the poor of Argentina. Remember, he’s a “compassionate conservative.” That means he’s a churchman who talks about combatting poverty, but then ends up opposing progressive politicians like Argentine president Cristina Kirchner.

In this, he’s the analogue of U.S. bishops siding with the Republican Party. All of those bishops claim to support the poor. However they end up doing the opposite. Their positions on the overriding “wedge issues” of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage put them in bed with the Republicans and their “preferential option for the rich.” In this way, the bishops end up trying to persuade Catholics to vote Republican. Bergoglio did something similar in Argentine politics.

More accurately still, Francis I is the analogue of John Paul II in Poland. John Paul was ultimately bad for Poland (and the developing world as well). True, he opposed the Polish version of communism and seemed to support the labor union, Solidarity. However John Paul actually undermined his country’s sovereignty and the global labor movement by appearing to give papal blessing to international capitalism. That not only impoverished Poland, it weakened labor and progressives throughout the Catholic world.

The election of Francis I promises to do something similar for (to!) Latin America. As politically conservative, he imparts ecclesiastical approbation to rightist governments throughout the region in their efforts to discredit and unseat Latin America’s newly resurgent progressives.

Secondly, the new pope shouldn’t resign because he betrayed two fellow Jesuits during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” During that conflict (1976-1983), and like most of the hierarchy in Latin America, Bergoglio sided with the criminal dictatorship whose leader has since been put behind bars as a ruthless murderer.

According to Horacio Verbitsky and his book, Silencio, Fr. Bergoglio, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, removed his order’s protection from two of his brother Jesuits accused of “subversion” (i.e. opposition to the military dictatorship). True, Verbitsky says, the future pope adopted a public posture of seeking the Jesuits’ release. However privately he cooperated in prolonging their detention and torture.

Both priests later brought charges against Bergoglio as an accomplice of the military for the priests’ unjust imprisonment. After initially and repeatedly invoking ecclesiastical privilege to avoid deposition about the case, Bergoglio was finally interviewed by prosecutors. According to Argentine human rights organizations, his answers were highly evasive.

No, the real reason Francis I should resign is because of what he did about the von Wernich case. Von Wernich was a police chaplain during the Dirty War. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for aiding and abetting the military in the illegal kidnapping, torture and murder of prisoners during the brutal dictatorship of the Argentine military. According to the New York Times, while von Wernich was being investigated for his actions, and while Bergoglio was a member of the Argentine Bishops Conference, the priest was transferred to Chile under an assumed name. There he served in a parish until his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for the crimes just mentioned. And von Wernich has never been defrocked, even after Bergoglio was elected head of the Bishops’ Conference, nor has any church apology been issued. In fact, the former police chaplain has been allowed to carry on as a priest while in prison.

Now imagine our reaction if von Wernich had been a pedophile. And imagine if Bergoglio had been part of a decision to transfer a pedophile cleric as he evidently was in the case of this serial kidnaper, murderer and torturer. The whole world would be outraged and would demand the pope’s resignation. He would be completely discredited. And yet, a serial kidnapper, torturer and murderer is infinitely more dangerous than a serial pedophile.

The point is that we have exemplified in the case of the new pope the very same syndrome that has been universally descried in cases of pedophilia. It is the same syndrome that plagued the tenure of Benedict XVI and that possibly evoked his own resignation. It’s the Old Boys protecting their own.

As I said, I’m not discouraged by all of this. Instead, my faith in the Holy Spirit has been renewed. Her ways are strange indeed. The papacy is crumbling before our eyes. But it may be the death necessary before resurrection.

Will the Next Pope Continue the War on Liberation Theology?

jesus on cross

With the resignation of Benedict XVI and the papal conclave in process, friends have asked me to say something about it all. My thought is simple. The success of any new papacy and the prospect of the Catholic Church rebounding from its worst crisis since the Reformation hinges on one thing more than any other: the attitude of the new pope and of church leadership in general to liberation theology.

Let me be clear on what I’m talking about. I understand liberation theology as “reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those committed to the emancipation of the poor and oppressed.” The commitment in question brings to light social implications of the Judeo-Christian tradition – for creating a world with room for everyone, beginning with the poor – that remain opaque for those without such commitment.

Liberation theology in the sense just defined represents the most important theological development of the last nearly 1700 years. More than that, it is arguably the most important intellectual development of the last 150 years – dating back to the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

Popes and presidents have implicitly recognized that importance and power over the last 40 years and more. In fact that reaction has given form to the Roman Catholic Church itself under the last two popes. More than anything else liberation theology has also influenced U.S. politics for the last 30 years. It has literally shaped our world. Liberation theology is the reason behind the current spate of unending wars against the poor people of the world.

When I express such judgment to friends, they remain dubious and unbelieving. Their response not only reflects tone-deafness to the power of religious mythology, it also illustrates how short our memories are. We have trouble recalling what Chomsky calls the “first religious war of the 21st century” – less than forty years ago. That war was fought not against Islam, but against the Catholic Church in Latin America, precisely because of its adoption of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.”

In Latin America, the Reagan administration and its successors correctly perceived the grassroots social power of liberation theology. In Central America they saw a threat to control of its “backyard.” So U.S. officials allied themselves with a conservative Polish pope in the Vatican, with reactionary Evangelicals in the United States to strangle the revolutions of the poor who found great hope in powerful liberationist interpretations of their religious traditions which had been traditionally used to keep them in their places.

The threat of liberation theology was perceived well before Reagan. Already in 1969, the Rockefeller Report had identified liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States. By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability. In between, in 1979 the first Santa Fe Document advised the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by liberation theology. The administration heeded the advice, and responded both militarily and ideologically.

Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology issued in that religious war Chomsky referenced. It was perceived as necessary because in 1969, the Conference of Latin American Bishops had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position.

To combat that commitment, the U.S. sponsored blood baths throughout Latin America. Many of us are well acquainted with the best-known martyrs: Camilo Torres, Archbishop Romero, the Salvadoran team of liberation theologians killed at San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, and with the U.S. women religious murdered years earlier in that same country. And then the unending list of martyrs in this war against the Catholic Church – 200,000 in Guatemala, more than 100,000 in Nicaragua, 90,000 in El Salvador, and literally untold killings and disappearances in Honduras. In every case, the carnage was a response to social movements inspired by liberation theology. Again, as Chomsky points out, official U.S. military documents show that liberation theology was a major target of those wars. In fact within those same official documents, the Army boasts specifically about defeating liberation theology.

As for Reagan’s ideological response to liberation theology . . . . On his accession to power, CIA Psy-ops began funding conservative alternatives to liberation theology in Latin America and in the U.S. So did business concerns that saw the leftward drift of Latin America as a threat to their presence there. Domino’s Pizza and Coors Brewery were prominent among the cases in point.

As a result, evangelicals throughout the region grew rapidly in number, and the recipients of those funds in the United States increasingly identified with Republicans, the “hand that fed them.” So the television programs of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others were beamed into every poor barrio, población, and favela. Right wing churches sprang up everywhere feeding and expanding an already robust evangelical presence in areas once completely dominated by the Catholic Church. The message was always the same – a depoliticized version of Christianity whose central commitment involved accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and rejecting communism including the type allegedly represented by the theology of liberation.

All of this points up the extreme importance of LT. In effect liberation theology was not only responsible for spiritual and political awakening throughout Latin America, it was also indirectly responsible for the rise of the religious right in the United States, and ultimately for the Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, we currently have in the White House the first U.S. president directly influenced by liberation theology. For 20 years, Barack Obama was part of the congregation of Jeremiah Wright – identified by James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, as the latter’s foremost contemporary embodiment.
This is why it is possible to identify liberation theology not only as the most important theological development of the last 1700 years, but as the West’s most important ideological development in the past 50 – perhaps the past 150 – years.

As for liberation theology’s contemporary importance, today’s religious right and the Tea Party would probably not exist today were it not for liberation theology. And the 2008 debate about liberation theology (i.e. about Jeremiah Wright) nearly derailed Obama’s run for the presidency. That is, liberation theology has been far more influential than most are willing to recognize. In a sense, it has shaped U.S.-Latin American relations for a half-century. It has changed the face of Protestantism in the United States.

Reagan’s ideological strategy against liberation theology also changed the Catholic Church. As indicated earlier, it involved allying himself with a conservative anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II, who proved to be an inveterate enemy of liberation theology. The apparent agreement between the two was that John Paul would be silent about the war against Latin American Catholics, if Reagan would help him in the pope’s campaign against communism in Poland. Over his reign of over 20 years, John Paul was to gradually replace Latin America’s pro-liberation theology bishops with conservative pre-Vatican II types. He did this throughout the world – mostly in direct response to liberation theology.

Even more virulently set against liberation theology was John Paul’s lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, whom the pope appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition). In that capacity, Ratzinger penned an official warning about liberation theology in 1985. Basically, it rejected the movement because of its association with Marxist analysis of third world poverty. Of course, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in the papacy. He’s the recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI. So the onslaught against liberation theology continues with no end in sight.

Sadly, Reagan’s two-front strategy worked. Revolutionary gains in El Salvador, Guatemala, and most prominently, in Nicaragua were halted and reversed. Militarily, the “Guatemala Solution” was the template. It entailed using military and paramilitary death squads to kill everyone remotely connected with guerrilla movements. According to the Reagan strategy, that included priests, nuns, lay catechists and ministers of the word influenced by liberation theology. The theological strategy worked as well. The slogan promulgated by the Salvadoran military said it all, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

But despite the carnage, and despite the claims of victory by the U.S. military, liberation theology remains alive and well in grass-roots movements for solidarity. And in general, social movements inspired by liberation theology bore fruit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They continue to bear fruit today. More specifically, one can credibly say that apart from the theology of liberation it’s impossible to explicate Allende’s rise to power in 1973 or the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, or the power the FMLN in El Salvador had and continues to enjoy today. The Zapatista movement in Mexico is also intimately connected with liberation theology. Even more, without reference to liberation theology, it’s impossible to fully understand the rise of new left governments throughout Latin America. All of them are indebted to liberation theology and its power to motivate the grassroots.

That same power to motivate is evident in the ongoing “Arab spring.” There the power derives from the liberation currents undeniably present in Islam. In fact, as Gandhi saw in changing the face of India, similar currents are found in Hinduism. All of this indicates that liberation theology has at its roots elements found at the center of all the religions of the world. In this light, the world-wide offensive against Islam represents the latest phase of the now Thirty Years War against liberation theology under wherever form it may appear.

To be on the right side of history and to move the world towards God’s Kingdom, any new pope must call off the war against liberation theology and embrace it fully in word and action. Imagine how the world would change if he did!

Five Issues for the New Pope to Address — and to guide in his selection

cardinals

So the cardinals of the church are meeting to elect the next pope. Who cares? The media obviously do. The Catholic Church is getting a lot of air time and ink. But some of us might be caught yawning.

The yawn issues from the fact that the last two disastrous papacies (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have so tightly packed the College of Cardinals with reactionary clones of themselves that any hope of rescuing the Romans from their deepest crisis since the Reformation seems remote at the very best.

But if there is hope of such rescue it resides in electing a pontiff who will directly address five issues: (1) summoning an Ecumenical Council, (2) opening priestly ordination to women, (3) abolition of mandatory celibacy for priests, (4) retraction of the prohibition of artificial contraception, and (5) practical adoption of liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor.

To begin with, an Ecumenical Council seems required not only to overcome the impression that the Roman Curia operating in its bubble has become hopelessly corrupt. It is necessary as well to bolster the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about collegiality after the twin papacies just mentioned did all they could to undermine cooperation with rather than dictating to local bishops.

An Ecumenical Council would also demonstrate serious intent to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia which is global in nature and requires global input to solve. Additionally, a general meeting of the world’s bishops would elicit input from theologian-advisers whose creative thought has been devalued over the last 35 years (dumbing-down the church in the process) and whose collective intellectual power transcends the capacity of any new pope who might be elected.

Secondly, the new pope and his Council must address the issue of women’s ordination. Opening the ranks of the priesthood in this way would have a twofold effect. Above all, it would be an act of restorative justice. It would incorporate into roles of church leadership its single most effective and committed constituents – whose contributions have been especially attacked, belittled and denigrated over the final year of Benedict XVI’s reign.

Admitting women to the priesthood would also have the effect of putting into proper perspective papal claims of infallibility. After all, John Paul II recklessly invoked those claims to bolster his untenable position against women’s ordination. By reversing John Paul’s error, any new pope would implicitly abandon the papacy’s indefensible claim to infallibility – and its attendant inability simply to admit error and reverse other mistakes connected with priestly celibacy, contraception, and the handling of priestly pedophiles.

Priestly celibacy is the third issue crying out for attention. To pretend there is no connection between sexual deviance and mandatory celibacy represents a monumental act of denial. Common sense would dictate that suppression of the most basic of evolutionary drives is a recipe for disaster. It is not only connected with pedophilia and misogyny, but with the loneliness that is endemic to the celibate priesthood and central to the ineffectiveness of celibates preaching to congregations overwhelmingly composed of married couples and young people anticipating marriage.

Along with the opening of the priesthood to women, removal of the celibacy requirement would immediately remedy the priest-shortage of the Catholic Church. Simultaneously it would presumably allow the many who have abandoned their calling in favor of marriage to resume the work for which they were trained all those many years. There’s simply no denying that following Vatican II, the cream of the crop was lost to this senseless and counterproductive prerequisite to ordination. It’s time to welcome back the former priests who wish to return.

Equally senseless has been the top-down decision outlawing artificial contraception made by Pope Paul VI and expressed in his 1969 Encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” That document took the decision about contraception out of the hands of the very commission the pope had then appointed to review the church’s traditional teaching. In doing so, Paul VI backed away from Vatican II’s emphasis on episcopal collegiality, and set the stage for the full retreat embraced by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Reversing “Humanae Vitae” would not only rectify a highly questionable teaching on contraception that obviously undermines the Vatican’s teaching on abortion; it would also move the church back on the track towards the democracy portended by Vatican II, but resisted by Rome since the end of the 18th century.

Finally, and most importantly in terms of relevance to the post-modern world, the new pope and the Council he summons must embrace liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. I say “most importantly” because this item unlike the others goes directly to the heart of the Christian faith. Even the inveterate enemy of liberation theology, Benedict XVI in his days as Cardinal Ratzinger, recognized that liberation theology’s commitment to the poor is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And with the majority of church members now located in the developing world, it is indispensable to the church’s relevance to insist that global economic and social policy be made on a percolate-up rather than a trickle-down basis.

Correlatively, a church siding with the poor must insist in no uncertain terms that current military expenditure (especially on the part of the United States) represents robbery from the world’s poor. It is also high time for the Vatican to get out of the banking business and its attendant ties to money laundering, the Italian mafia, and banking system’s inevitable preferential option for the rich.

The retreat from Vatican II represented by nearly 35 years of Ratzinger’s overweening influence as right-hand man of John Paul II and as Benedict XVI was premised on a false hope. Evidently the last two popes imagined that a restoration of a vaguely remembered halcyon past would somehow fill pews and restore order to a church irrelevantly led by a hierarchy of out-of-touch old men. So the two popes doubled down on the old order instead of following through on the promise and risks of Vatican II. The disasters of recent years have shown the foolishness of their wager.

It’s now up to the cardinals and the pope they will select to get the church back on track. The unacceptable alternative is to continue along a path that will inevitably lead to further disaster and continued irrelevance.

What if the Catholic Church Responded to Its Sex Scandal the Way the NCAA Did to Theirs?

 

Pope Ratzinger confers with his Cardinal colleagues
Pope Ratzinger confers with his Cardinal colleagues

Many were pleasantly surprised by the severity of the sanctions the National Collegiate Athletic Association placed on Penn State following its investigation of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. The NCAA’s measures evidenced an appropriately serious approach to unspeakable crimes.  At the same time, however, the athletic association’s aggressive sanctions contrasted sharply with the lack of appropriate response to much greater crimes on the part of Roman Catholic clergy.  It made some wonder what it might look like if the Catholic Church handled its infinitely larger scandal in a fashion similar to that of the NCAA.  

Of course, the Penn State’s board of trustees had initially tried to defuse its shameful situation by having the institution’s president resign and by firing Joe Paterno, the football program’s legendary coach. Eventually, they even removed “Joepa’s” statue that (dis)graced the entrance way to the football stadium in Happy Valley.   

But the NCAA went far beyond that – even further than most had expected.  It appointed high profile Independent Counsel, Louis Freeh, to investigate responsibility for Sandusky’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. Then in the wake of Freeh’s damning final report, it fined the University $60 million dollars – the amount the football program takes in annually. It ordered the program to vacate its winnings since 1998 (thus depriving Paterno of his legacy as the winningest coach in NCAA football history). It forbade the program to extend any football scholarships for the next four years, and released all of its current players from their ties to Penn State, making them immediately eligible to play elsewhere. The football program will be devastated for years to come.

The NCAA’s bold sanctions couldn’t be further from the response of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to its child abuse scandal. There instead the “old boy” defense of the institution and the members of its all male club kicked in just as it did at first inside Penn State’s football program when the Sandusky crimes initially came to light. At Penn State, the wagons were circled, Sandusky was mildly chided while everyone in charge from the University president and Joe Paterno on down denied any knowledge or responsibility. The attitude that “boys will be boys” threatened to carry the day.

The equivalent of that attitude and (non)response still prevails within the Holy City despite the shameful involvement of priests in raping and otherwise sexually abusing children on a worldwide scale that absolutely dwarfs anything that happened in Happy Valley. In the face of thorough investigations by independent groups (e.g. the absolutely devastating indictment published last year in Ireland) the Cardinal of New York invoked the “bad apples” defense, and protested that “only” a small portion of the clergy was tainted.

But what would it have looked like (impossibly!) if the Catholic Church had responded like the NCAA?

If it had done so:

–          Pope Ratzinger would have resigned immediately.

–          All cardinals and bishops who had covered up the scandal would have been removed from office.

–          The canonization process for John Paul II would have been terminated, because of the way he played down the sex scandal. This would be the equivalent of removing Joepa’s statue.

–          An investigation independent of the Vatican would have been launched headed by an unimpeachable figure – say the Dali Lama, perhaps joined by Sr. Pat Farrell, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which is currently being investigated by the Vatican.

–          Upon completion of its investigation (assuming it would have reached conclusions similar to the one in Ireland), the commission would have:

  • Fined the Catholic Church $500 billion – the equivalent of one year of the R.C. church income. The money would be used world-wide to aid victims of sex abuse and to institute programs to educate clergy about human sexuality using the best insights of current sociology and psychology.
  • Removed from the list of genuine popes all those whose public crimes made them unworthy of the title “Vicars of Christ.” Here the Borgia popes come to mind, as well as Pope Pius XII for his silence about the Jewish Holocaust. (Obviously, the process of his canonization would be abruptly ended.) This would be the rough equivalent of Penn State’s vacating its football wins since 1998.
  • The exclusion of women from the priesthood would be reversed, and seminary scholarships would be extended world-wide to women desiring to receive Holy Orders.
  • Mandatory celibacy would be set aside as a requirement of the priesthood.
  • A reforming Church Council (Vatican III?) would be ordered to deal with the sex abuse and related problems – to be attended only by bishops not involved in the abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up. Their places would be taken by women elected by national bodies equivalent to the LCWR in the United States.

Of course, nothing like the results just described is remotely possible. Roman Catholic insulation from the external processes necessary to achieve such outcomes prevents that eventuality. The only external source capable of moving the church in the desired direction belongs to the Catholic faithful itself. It alone has the authority to withhold church attendance and contributions till the desired decisions of reform are taken.

Such pressure from the faithful will eventually be applied willy-nilly. That is, the faithful will either wage a purposeful campaign of withholding attendance and financial support in the light of failed church leadership. Or alternatively (and more likely) the once-faithful will be driven away from the church as the realization dawns that a college sports organization possesses sounder moral character than what pretends to be the “Mystical Body of Christ.”

SPIRITUAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD (Pt. 4: Why I Left the Priesthood)

Last week I argued that under the last two popes, the church has proven tone-deaf to completely reasonable arguments against mandatory celibacy. As a result, the end of that requirement and its attendant disasters is as far away as ever. Equally distant seems any practical recognition by the official church of the profound spiritual conclusions inescapably drawn from the ecumenical movement and its powerful expressions over the last century and more.

Closer to our own day, read the current Pope Ratzinger’s reactionary Dominus Jesus (DJ) written in 2000 over the signature of John Paul II. It’s a clear reassertion of a pre-Vatican II vision. Discouragingly it identifies the Roman Catholic Church as representing virtually the only path to salvation. It insults Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam with criticisms about their “superstitious” content. Meanwhile, protestant churches are identified as failing to qualify as “church in the proper sense of the word.” Additionally, Dominus Jesus is totally Eurocentric, and overlooks almost completely not only the documents of Vatican II (e.g. on Revelation, Mission, Ecumenism, and the Church in the Modern World), but also theological developments that have taken place in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, where the majority of church members reside.

This is pretty much the point where I came in nearly 50 years ago, when I took my first hesitant steps towards the priesthood and membership in the Missionary Society of St. Columban. But as indicated in earlier posts, I’ve changed a great deal since then. More importantly so have the Columbans themselves, the church in general, the priesthood – and the world. There is no going back. Attempts to do so as articulated in DJ and elsewhere not only cannot work. They signal as well an irreversible crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, of the priesthood, and of groups like the Society of St. Columban. A crisis is “irreversible” when new consciousness has dawned, problems have been reframed, and old answers prove irrelevant. In the case at hand, nothing less than new forms of church, priesthood and understanding of mission are demanded by the signs of these particular times.

And what would those new forms look like? At the most basic level, they would incarnate a theology and spirituality suggested by Vatican II and its emphasis on the normative value of Sacred Scripture. That means recognizing the reality of the Divine Spirit’s universal revelation. That revelation, I’ve come to understand, is quite simple – “beyond belief,” as Elaine Pagels puts it. Here there is no room for exclusivity in terms of 4th century doctrines and dogmas. Instead, understandings of revelation must connect with personal experience founded on a deep spirituality, and nurtured by practices found in all the world’s Great Religions. Those traditions tell us that all creation is one. The world itself embodies and communicates a Revelation open to everyone. We are brothers and sisters with one another and with life forms in the rest of the universe – which means with everything that is. It’s as simple – and as profound – as that.

The simplicity, profundity and mystery of it all have haunted me since my participation in a seminar at the Atheneum Anselmianum, my second year in Rome. The topic in this very international setting had turned to enculturation – making Christian faith understandable across cultural lines. A young priest from India asked a simple question. “How do you make the uniqueness of Jesus understandable to Hindus? They, after all, believe that every human being is a God-person.” That simple question drove me to examine my faith at the deepest level. I wondered: if I were to translate my Christian faith concept for concept into something truly understandable to Indians, would it come out Hinduism? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I know it’s way more complicated than I suggest. However, my musings sent me on a Merton-like quest to understand what the East had to offer in terms of understanding God and spirituality.

Eventually, all of that brought me to a position I’ve (re?)discovered over the last fifteen years. It’s centralized the practice of daily meditation, but in a form much simpler than the Ignatian method introduced to young Columbans during our “Spiritual Year,” when we all were about 20 years of age.  Other elements include repetition of the mantram (aspirations), reading from the world’s great mystical traditions, training the senses, slowing down, practicing one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and association with those who are following the same spiritual path. It’s all explained quite simply, for instance, in many books by Eknath Easwaran, but especially in his Meditation. However I’ve been drawn to this path, not on someone else’s recommendation, but because my personal experience has shown its effectiveness in terms of changes in my life and behaviour. Absent that, I’d stop the practices.

I sometimes wish that form of spirituality and spiritual formation had been the foundation of my training for the priesthood. In that case, I might still be a Columban, simply because such practice would have resulted in a radically different form of priesthood. Instead, the spiritual direction I experienced in the seminary and especially after ordination was as heteronomos as the (non)instruction offered us about celibacy. For the most part, both were formal, uninvolved and lacking in real insight for young aspirants desiring to lead genuinely spiritual lives. By no means was this the fault of the good men who tried to guide us. It’s just that the prevailing spirituality, the method of prayer and meditation, the books offered for “spiritual reading” and the spiritual practices we followed were all grossly tainted by dogmatism, formality and legalism.

Those are the very characteristics that eventually drove so many of us away from our supposed priestly calling.

Next week: Series Conclusion