My Fight with Richard Rohr

I’m going to pick a little fight here with Richard Rohr, a man I truly admire and whose credentials make disagreement with him rather audacious. After all, he’s a best-selling author of more than 30 books, and is considered one of our great contemporary spiritual teachers. But bear with me anyhow.

My bone of contention with Fr. Rohr is his domestication of the historical Jesus. The Franciscan friar’s emphasis on Jesus as the “Universal Christ” ends up transforming the Master from a politically revolutionary figure into a spiritual teacher who in his time, it seems to me, would have had zero appeal to his intended audience. Certainly, he would have represented no threat at all to the Roman Empire that eventually executed him as a terrorist insurgent.

The distinction I’ll make is important for believers today living in the belly of the beast that proudly claims to succeed Rome as the world’s hegemon. That succession makes it a matter of urgency for Jesus’ disciples to determine our political stance toward issues like climate chaos, military budgets, nuclear stockpile updates, regime changes, interference in foreign elections, and identification of official enemies.

Should we be politically engaged as resisters to empire? Or is our task confined to tending our own gardens and reforming our own lives and behavior to more resemble Jesus meek and mild? Father Rohr, it seems to me, errs by emphasizing the latter position.

Let me develop that point by first expressing my appreciation for Richard Rohr. I’ll then look at his depoliticization of Jesus compared with what we know about the Jesus of history. Finally, I’ll offer some practical conclusions.  

Fr. Rohr and Me

I truly admire Richard Rohr. In fact, I identify with him. He’s just a bit younger than me and completely shares my intensely Catholic background.

Like me, he was raised at a time when we Catholics believed we possessed the whole truth. Protestants were the enemy and, we were convinced, on the road to hell.

Though he entered the seminary a bit later than me (beginning with college rather than with high school), his formative years were entirely shaped by the church. Like mine, his priestly world of certainty was shaken to its core after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to open the church to the world.

Suddenly Protestants became our “separated brothers and sisters in the faith.” Non-Christian religions were validated as authentic responses to a universal religious impulse. The task all religions shared became understanding, serving, and sanctifying the world.

Richard Rohr stands prominent among those who embraced the mandate of Vatican II and who remained faithful to its call despite a rightward shift in the church following a long period of retrenchment and rejection of Vatican II’s principles by the reactionary popes, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Through it all, Richard Rohr not only remained faithful to the Council’s principles. He has continued its progressive shift by reinterpreting in insightful, common sense ways traditional Catholic doctrines such as the Trinity and Jesus as Universal Christ.

Rohr has even treated liberation theology with sensitive respect. That’s the Marxist-influenced movement that emerged in the Catholic Church when Global South churches were invited to apply Council insights in the former colonies.

The result was reflection on the following of Christ shaped by the experience of the poor and oppressed intent on improving their collective lives economically, politically, socially, and spiritually.

Liberation theology recovers the relevance of the historical Jesus who was a Jew preaching reformed Judaism to other Jews. The center of his message was the Kingdom of God which every Jew of his time understood as the reconstitution of King David’s reign with its 12 tribes intact.

Rohr, Jesus and Rome

Nevertheless, Fr. Rohr is very gingerly, almost apologetic in his endorsement of liberation theology’s emphasis on the Jesus of history. And when he searches the Christian Testament, he finds forgiveness rather than prophetic judgment and revolutionary fervor.

All of this comes out in a YouTube video on Ragamuffin TV entitled “Jesus and Empire.” There, Fr. Richard emphasizes Jesus’ forgiveness not only of individuals, but, as he puts it, of “social constructs.” He forgives Judaism for being legalistic. He forgives Romans for being oppressive. He forgives life for being absurd to the point of making his own execution necessary.

Generally according to Fr. Rohr, Jesus’ way of resistance was simple refusal to participate in the Roman system of oppression, while advocating complete nonviolence. Specifically, Rohr says:

  • Far from advocating the violent expulsion of Rome from the Holy Land, Jesus’ approach was “sort of Nonviolence 101.”
  • Jesus is telling us to “clean our own cups” before even thinking about judging or attacking others. Don’t make the problem “out there” or you’ll never get beyond it,” was his teaching. Other people are not the problem; it’s you that has to change.
  • [Although Fr. Rohr does admit with a chuckle that Jesus had some “pretty harsh things to say” about the pharisees – e.g., calling them “whited sepulchers” (Matthew 3:27) and pronouncing harsh “woes” for the rich, well-fed and apparently happy (Luke 6: 24-25), while apparently condemning to eternal flame those failing to recognize him in the hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46).]
  • It’s also significant that none of the gospels even mentions the town of Sepphoris, the bustling Roman regional capital just 9 miles down the road from Nazareth. Such silence again indicates that Jesus refused to participate in the Roman system. The implication is “O.K., that’s what the Romans are about; but I’m not going to get you into an anti-Roman frenzy.”
  • Jesus goes further. He even shows friendship with Romans. He cures a centurion’s servant at a distance without chastising the officer for oppressing the Jewish people (Matthew 8: 5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
  • According to two Gospel accounts, it was a Roman soldier who first acknowledged Jesus’ divinity, “Indeed, this man was the son of God” (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 37).
  • Fr. Richard sums up Jesus’ attitude towards Rome as “damning with faint praise.” Or rather, he ignored the “stupid” Roman system in favor of building a better one, viz., the Kingdom of God. It was, “Hey, guys, let’s do it better and I’m going to give you the rituals, teachings and keys to how to accomplish that. But let’s not be negative ‘anti people;’ let’s be for something.”
  • The “something” to be for was simple living – rather like Wendell Berry’s concentration of his creative efforts on just one piece of land. After all, small is truly beautiful.
  • In summary, Jesus embodied the Universal Christ – the life principle that comprises our True Self that unifies the entire human race and all of creation. In opposing others, you are really opposing yourself, because the other is yourself (Matthew 7:12).

The Historical Jesus

My gentle fight with Richard Rohr turns on many of the points just listed, but principally on his understanding of that understanding of “Christ.”

Take those points already reviewed:

  • For starters, Jesus’ attitude towards violence is far more complicated than Fr. Rohr allows. Without going into detail, he’s remembered as saying some disturbing things on this subject. For instance:
    1. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:49).
    2. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
    3. “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36-39).
    4. Additionally, on the day of his arrest, the leader of Jesus’ group was armed and had no compunction about using his weapon against the arresting police (John 18:10).
    5. Then, there’s the fact that all lists of Jesus’ apostles contain “Simon the Zealot.” [In Jesus’ day, those called Zealots were committed (often violent) revolutionaries.]
    6. Finally, there’s Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” and the perplexing use of force involved there (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–16).
  • The fact is that the entire concept of non-violence is a modern one. No one in Jesus’ day thought that a power as mighty as Rome could somehow be defeated without some sort of muscular resistance. Granted, Jesus might have rejected that avenue. But he nowhere explains that alternative.
  • As for Sepphoris and Gospel silence about it. . . The Gospels are silent about the entirety of Jesus’ life as a construction worker – and everything else about him after the historically questionable “infancy narratives” found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Does this mean that Jesus boycotted human life in general?
  • Regarding Jesus’ contacts with Roman soldiers, it’s a quite common occurrence, of course, during any war or occupation for soldiers to be “converted” to local ways and wisdom and even to reject the whole colonial project.
  • Finally, a message of “Don’t judge the Romans and reform yourselves instead,” would have garnered Jesus zero followers among his peasant listeners. And instead of killing Jesus as an insurgent, the Romans would have likely ignored or approved of him.

Then, of course there are the many elements in the Christian Testament that indicate Jesus’ opposition to Rome. For instance, apart from the provocative statements above:

  • Jesus was born in Galilee which was by all accounts a hotbed of anti-imperial rebellion.
  • His mother is remembered as composing a revolutionary song that celebrated “putting down the mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:46-55).
  • She and Joseph gave all of their sons revolutionary names: Yeshua (Joshua), Simon, Joseph, James (Jacob), and Judas.
  • Jesus’ basic proclamation that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God had as its inevitable corollary the ushering out of Roman occupation. To Roman ears, that claim was unequivocally treasonous.
  • The same was true of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ.”  They were anti-imperial, revolutionary titles.
  • In Jesus’ context, there was no practical distinction between the Roman Empire and Jesus’ Jewish archenemies belonging to the “scribal establishment” and including the Temple priesthood. Its high priests were virtual employees of the empire. By attacking them, Jesus was attacking Rome.
  • Similarly, Jesus’ statements against and interactions with Galilee’s king, Herod Antipas involved the Roman empire (Matthew 2: 6-18; 14: 1-12; Luke 13: 32; 23: 6-12). Herod too served at Rome’s pleasure
  • At one point, the Gospel of Mark recounts Jesus’ identifying a band of terrifying demons with the hated Roman Legions and with polluting pigs. Afterwards, he causes the pigs to drown “in the sea” – a phrase deliberately recalling the fate of Egyptian troops perishing in the Red Sea while pursuing the Hebrew founding fathers and mothers (Mark 5: 1-17).
  • Above all, after applying their torture, the Romans crucified Jesus using a form of execution reserved for insurgents against imperial authority. That is, Rome treated Jesus as an anti-imperial bandit.
  • On his cross, the titulus or statement of Jesus’ crime read specifically, “King of the Jews” – an ipso facto anti-imperial claim.  

Fr. Rohr’s Universal Christ

Fr. Rohr ignores all of that. More particularly, however, the meaning that he gives the term “Christ” was definitely not the understanding of the historical Jesus nor of anyone in his audiences.

Rather, Fr. Rohr’s use of the term comes from Paul of Tarsus, who never actually met the historical Jesus and shows little interest in him. It also derives from the ahistorical Gospel of John which nearly four generations after his death transforms Jesus into an anti-Jewish mystic.

Other key sources for Rohr’s Universal Christ are the highly symbolic Book of Revelation which barely made it into the Christian canon along with the so-called “gnostic gospels” most of which were written centuries after the death of Jesus.

By way of contrast and as described for instance by Reza Aslan, “Christ” meant one thing and one thing only for Jesus and his contemporaries. The Christ was the promised Messiah who would be (1) a descendant of King David, (2) who would restore David’s royal line and the 12 tribes of Israel, and (3) expel foreign occupiers from Judah’s Holy Land. That’s it. There was simply no other understanding of that term in Jesus’ context. Again, Jesus did not take pains to explain any other interpretation.

To repeat: along with the dozens of others claiming messiahship in his day, Jesus called the ushering in of Davidic sovereignty the “Kingdom of God.” But that necessarily entailed opposition to Roman occupiers. As I said, the ushering in of God’s Kingdom necessarily entailed the ushering out from Israel the Roman kingdom – the occupation forces that shaped every aspect of life in first century Palestine.

Clearly, the occupiers understood that. For them, the concept of God’s Reign was treasonous. So, every man who claimed to be the agent of David’s kingdom restoration (and again, there were dozens if not hundreds of them in Jesus’ world) suffered crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners. The ones so crucified all claimed to be messiahs or Christs, i.e., God’s anointed.

Conclusion

None of what I’ve written here is meant to diminish the status of Fr. Richard Rohr as the great spiritual teacher and inspirational author he is.  Much less is it intended to denigrate the spiritual value of the Universal Christ concept.

As reflected in Rohr’s most basic sources (Paul of Tarsus, John’s Fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation, and the Gnostic Gospels) – as well as in strains belonging to all the world’s Great Religions – the idea of a Life Force unifying all of creation is not merely valid; its practical recognition is essential for the survival of our species and planet.

As acknowledged by Fr. Richard, the Universal Christ also has important political implications. If we truly recognize that reality, we’ll indeed see that our neighbors actually are ourselves – and so is every other element in creation.

Instead, what’s argued here is that Fr. Rohr’s explicit diminution of Jesus’ anti-imperial stance  is inadequate for Christians living in the belly of the beast that has so proudly and arrogantly identified itself as Rome’s contemporary successor.

That beast currently threatens life on our planet in ways undreamt of by previous imperial iterations no matter how depraved. It has literally set the globe ablaze. Its endless wars immiserate populations everywhere. It recognizes no finally valid international law. It imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any country on earth. Its nuclear policy portends endless winter.

In dire circumstances like those, Fr. Rohr’s Gospel of endless forgiveness and of cleaning one’s own cup (while personally helpful) is simply insufficient as the response of Christians to the unprecedented threat our own country represents in these truly apocalyptic times.

Something else is needed.

We need a burning sense of urgency. We need to open our eyes. We need to resist our own country as the greatest existential threat human history has ever experienced.

And that means first of all rejecting indoctrination and knee-jerk patriotic denial that typically characterizes Christian communities. It also entails the transformation of local churches into something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church where entire congregations unite specifically as communities of resistance sponsoring direct action that only communities (vs. individuals) can prosecute successfully. For instance, in our case:

  • Joining street-level acts of resistance to empire at every opportunity
  • Sponsoring specifically anti-imperial education programs
  • Lending each other community support in collectively refusing to pay war taxes
  • Counselling young people against entering the military
  • Political campaigning for peace candidates
  • Divesting from and boycotting key economic engines of the U.S. economy like Amazon and Wal-Mart
  • Forming or joining local credit unions

But above all, in our churches we must escape contentment with cleaning our own cup or tending our own garden as a somehow adequate response to our extraordinary times.

Such uncontroversial spiritual solipsism may let us off the hook. But it was not the way of the historical Jesus.

What Amy Coney Barrett Missed in Pope Francis’ “Fratelli Tutti”

The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.

The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.

Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.

Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism

Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.

This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.     

However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).

Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.

Pope Francis’ Catholicism

All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).

Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.

With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)

Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:

  • The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
  • Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
  • Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
  • Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
  • Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
  • Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
  • Violence:  Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
  • Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
  • War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
  • Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
  • Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).

Conclusion    

The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.  

Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”

Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.

Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.  

80th Birthday Reflections Part 7: Priestly Disorder (continued)

St. Columban’s Seminary, Dalgan, Ireland where in 1970 & ’71 I took part in a General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban

[Before I continue with my 80th birthday reflections about my political development, I must add a brief account of a very important event in the process that eventually led me to leave the priesthood I had prepared so long to enter. The event I describe below gave me an insight into the inner workings of the missionary organization I had joined (the Society of St. Columban) — at the highest level.]

As indicated in previous postings, the changes represented by Second Vatican Council reforms introduced into my life a certain alienation from the Society of St. Columban, from traditional ideas of the priesthood and from my vow of celibacy. My immediate superior’s unfounded accusations recounted in part 5 of these octogenarian reflections were central to the process.

The feelings I described were compounded, when the Columbans convoked their post-Vatican II “Chapter” (leadership assembly) in 1970. The idea was to gather together the group’s leaders to determine how the Society of St. Columban might change in the light of Vatican II documents such as “The Church in the Modern World.”

The leadership in question was comprised of ex officio members such as our current Superior General and his Council. At large members were also either appointed or elected by the group which at its height had about 1000 priest-members. The majority delegates to the Chapter turned out to more than 60 years of age.

With that in mind and because of the objections of younger members, a compromise was reached to allow invitation as well of one representative each from Irish, American, and Australian members of the Society 30 years of age and under. Because of their junior status, the “young” invitees, it was determined, would have voice at the Chapter, but no vote. Joined by two bright counterparts from Ireland and Australia, I was elected to represent U.S. juniors.

The voice without vote restriction had all of us feeling like outsiders from the get-go.

My own alienation was brought to the fore by the ex officio presence of my rector from Rome. Soon after my arrival at the Chapter’s venue (the Columban major seminary in Navan, Ireland about 30 miles from Dublin), I learned that he had wasted no time before conveying to others my status as suspect and “dangerous.”

And why was I considered dangerous? It was because of positions I had taken on issues hotly debated at the time. In retrospect, the positions seem quite tame. But when I wrote them up in an “Introductory Note on Youth Representation,” even my Irish and Australian youth delegate counterparts thought them “too polarizing” to share with the Chapter at large.

The paper contrasted pre-Vatican II positions with post-conciliar approaches to church, mission, sacraments, priesthood and authority. Here’ the gist of what I wrote. Now, it almost seems laughable that such tame positions were considered polarizing:

  • Church: Pre-Vatican II theology, I noted, thought of the Catholic Church as an organization to which everyone must belong in order to save their souls – i.e. to get into heaven. There was “no salvation outside the church.” By contrast, the Post-Vatican II position envisioned the church as an often-small prophetic community at the service of the world itself – helping it towards the fully human life of love exemplified in the example and teaching of Jesus the Christ. Even a very this-worldly life based on self-giving constitutes the meaning of “salvation.”
  • Mission: According to older understandings that had shaped the Society of Saint Columban, our work as missionaries meant saving pagans in China, Korea, the Philippines, and Fiji by baptizing as many as possible into the Catholic Church without which it was impossible for them to get to heaven. In the newer view, quantity of membership took a backseat to quality of witness. And witness meant replicating Jesus’ life of healing, forgiveness and self-sacrifice – for the benefit of the larger world.
  • Sacraments: In the theology imbibed by most members of the Chapter I attended, the sacraments were rituals that made human events like birth, marriage, sickness and death holy. The faithful needed sacraments to turn such secular events into acts of supernatural worth. However, the newer vision saw those human events as already holy simply in virtue of God’s creative order. On this understanding, sacraments became occasions to celebrate life itself and the transcendent dimension found in every human birth, marriage, visiting of the sick, in every act of forgiveness and sharing – whether they might be formally celebrated or not.
  • Priests: Pre-Vatican II theology understood priests as men set apart – almost of a caste different from lay people. Post Vatican II theology understood priesthood as one function or charism among many others within the Christian community – e.g. counsellor, teacher, administrator, musician or prophet. 
  • Authority: In the world of my inculturation, authority was given to administrators. Obedience was a supreme virtue for the rest of us. According to the old view, the ideal superior was a “sound man” who was safe, took no chances and “runs a tight ship.” After the Second Vatican Council, authority is earned, not conferred. Here community leaders are listeners who articulate a community’s consciousness of itself.  They enable rather than direct. They are forward-looking, innovate and take chances. When mistakes are made, they are freely admitted.

I conveyed my initial impression of the Chapter in my journal when I wrote soon after my arrival at the end of September: “Reading over the Chapter publications and talking with various people here make it awfully hard to identify with the Society and with the approaches of this Chapter. It makes me wonder what my own future in an outfit like this can possibly be. I’m estranged; I really am.”

Meanwhile, I also noticed that the Irish seminary itself seemed behind the times. True, I hit it off well with the seminarians taking part in field day competitions and playing basketball on the outside courts. They even wanted me to play on the seminary team.

However, a November (1970) letter to my constituents had me making the following observation regarding the stage of renewal in our seminary in Ireland: “As for the stage of seminary renewal here. . . It’s about up to where we in the States were in the ’64-’66 period. Or maybe even a little before that. . .The difficulty with renewal here (in the seminary and in the Irish church in general) seems to be this: here the church is more or less coextensive with the culture. . . The Irish church can go on speaking in archaic terms, it can go on doing rather meaningless things and still have the impression that it’s communicating the Good News in a meaningful way to the world. However, it’s not. And, after speaking with young people here (outside the seminary), it has become clear to me that this kind of illusion will not be long-lasting. The young are being alienated here too, sad to say.”

The break I predicted came in 1973 with Ireland’s integration into the European Union and with the pedophilia scandals of the late 1980s. Together, they changed everything. Entry into the EU brought the secularization and eventually the Thatcherism and Reaganism of the 1980s that centralized money, entrepreneurism, and consumption just as they did elsewhere in the western world. And, of course, the pedophilia crisis completely discredited the clergy and hierarchy.

The changes introduced were so profound that by 2018 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St. Columban – the head of the Society characterized Ireland’s culture as “post-Christian.” Hearing those words from a Columban superior was shocking to me even at the age of 78.

During the two Chapter sessions I attended in Ireland (1970 and ’71 — each lasting several months) all of that was only vaguely foreshadowed. But it certainly was part of the disorder I’ve been trying to explain in these 80th birthday reflections. My highly ordered world was disintegrating at very deep levels that were intellectual, ecclesiastical, very personal, and eventually highly political.

80th Birthday Reflections Part 5: The Priesthood & Disordered Celibacy

My first year in Rome, James Kavanaugh wrote a national best seller called A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. It was a general critique of the Catholic hierarchy for not going far enough with the Vatican II reforms. For Kavanaugh, the church was still too priest and hierarchy centered. It needed more democracy. 

However, what most of us remember about A Modern Priest was its rejection of celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination. The book sparked many discussions at the dinner and supper table where our community of 12-15 young priests took our meals each noon and evening.

There, debates about scripture, theology, politics were the liveliest and best-informed that I’ve ever experienced. And I took part with great enthusiasm. My studies at the Anselmo were radicalizing me. They took me beyond post-Vatican II positions I had previously never dreamed of regarding church reform, the inspiration of the Bible, Jesus’ divinity, Mary’s virginity, the Reformation, papal infallibility, the priesthood itself, and, of course, celibacy.

Reluctant Celibates   

Intense debates about that latter issue were influenced not only by Kavanaugh, but by the more general sexual revolution that was a central part of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The contraceptive pill had been introduced in 1960. And with the fear of unintended pregnancy largely shelved, sexual freedom became the watchword of the day. Priests were not immune from any of that.

Previously, I mentioned earlier my own concerns about “reluctant celibacy.” Every priest I knew shared them. In fact, as I traveled (on motor scooter) and worked with priests in Austria, Germany, France, Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, Poland and elsewhere during my summers in Europe, I couldn’t help but notice that some priests had openly set aside their reluctance. For all practical purposes, they had become married priests. (Later, in Brazil, Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, Africa and India I came across evidence of the same phenomenon.)

That was one aspect of the priesthood and the sexual revolution; priests were voting with their feet against mandatory celibacy; mostly informally some were getting married. Another aspect was that priests in general were leaving in droves in order to marry; they were seeking Vatican dispensations from their vows – including 3/4 of those who had entered the high school seminary with me back in 1954. In fact, thousands upon thousands of priests worldwide were abandoning their vocations.

In between those two categories were priests I knew who had girlfriends – something totally unheard of in the church I had grown up in. There, particular female companionship was absolutely forbidden. Even more, it was entirely scandalous for ordained men to seek dispensation from their vows. And no one (at least in the U.S. church) would live openly with a female partner. At least, that was the church I knew.

The Big Ed Factor

The girlfriend phenomenon showed up with a vengeance on Corso Trieste with the arrival of a character called “Big Ed.” He was a bullshitter; there’s no other way of saying it. And he changed the atmosphere in our house. Not that he lived there, but he was greatly admired by a whole clique of my friends who did.

Big Ed claimed he was a priest. But I’m not sure about that. That’s because (as I said) he was an inveterate liar. His shtick was to tell the girls that he was Tom McNeely, the 1960s heavyweight prizefighter whom he apparently resembled. (He’d tell them that as he mixed, shared and downed pitchers of boilermakers.) I suspect the ruse worked with many women. But who knows if he was telling the truth about being a priest?

What I do know is that his shtick worked with that clique I mentioned. Not that they believed him about being McNeely. But they all thought he was very cool. And they certainly admired his savoir faire with the women. For a while there, it seemed that they went out clubbing with him almost every night. All of a sudden, every conversation the next morning at breakfast was about Big Ed this and Big Ed that. Suddenly the man was a legend; he could do no wrong.

I bring him up because Big Ed epitomized the changes I’m describing here around the issue of priestly celibacy. As the years lengthened following Vatican II, we all found ourselves loosening up in relation to the restrictions that were so much a part of our seminary lives. We were drinking more, clubbing more, and interacting more with women. Eventually, I was no exception – except in my doubts, suspicions, and reservations about Big Ed. Even according to my own more relaxed standards, he seemed over the top.

My Own Crisis

Yes, eventually, I succumbed – or rather, I would say I finally appropriated my own sexual identity and acceptance of close female friends. I made the decision to do so at the age of 30. I won’t go into detail about the resulting discoveries, relationships and repercussions – things that all of us have gone through, but at ages much earlier than 30.

Before any of that, my own decision was hastened by those lively discussions mentioned earlier. I mean my growing “radicalism” had not passed unnoticed by the rector of our house on Corso Trieste. So, one morning just before my 30th birthday, he said he wanted a word with me. I remember our walking together in our residence garden ‘round and ‘round the house in deep discussion.

The rector informed me that he had written a letter about me to the Columban Superior General. Because of what he heard me saying at table, the rector had identified me to our Society’s leadership as “dangerous” and unfit to teach in the seminary after the attainment of my doctoral degree. Moreover, the rector said, he was disturbed by the fact that some young females from a high school on our street had been seeking me out for spiritual guidance. He thought that was inappropriate and suspect.

I was completely shocked. First of all, I was amazed that the letter had been written before discussing it with me. But secondly, there was absolutely nothing inappropriate about those meetings with the girls in question. I was actually proud that my Italian was good enough to do something “pastoral” other than simply offering Mass at local churches and convents. (At this point, I was involved in an alternative, lay-led church connected with the high school. In the middle of each week, its members met to discuss and prepare the following Sunday’s liturgy. It was extremely inspiring). Thirdly, I knew that unlike others in our community, I was studiously avoiding relationships I still considered ill advised.

Processing It All

I remember subsequently writing such reflections in my diary. They drove me to think more deeply not only about celibacy, but about decision-making in the religious group I had joined and generally in the church. The celibacy obligation, I knew hadn’t been imposed on priests till about the 12th century. And it had largely originated from the desire on the part of church officials to protect ecclesiastical property from inheritance by the offspring of priests.

I now allowed myself to recognize that such avaricious motivation had created an entirely patriarchal, basically misogynist and hypocritical subculture. It inflicted guilt on young people for following the dictates of the second most powerful human drive (after self-preservation) viz. their sexual instinct (or as Darwin might put it, propagation of the species). The church did that in general. Practically speaking, it reduced faith to obsession with sex. It had in the process put unbearable burdens on unsuspecting young boys like me at the age of 14. In retrospect, all of that seemed like an unwitting form of abusing children too young to give informed consent. And then by the time age of consent was achieved, we were all too indoctrinated (not to say brainwashed) to escape.

With all of that more or less unconsciously in mind, the priests I was increasingly encountering were exercising what theologians called the “sensus fidelium” about celibacy. (Something similar had happened more widely regarding contraception and divorce.) As I was coming to understand it, that theologically recognized “sense of the faithful” referred to near unanimous agreement on the part of lay believers about a matter of faith or morals regardless of what the hierarchy might say. That implicit unanimity, I saw, had already been achieved among priests across the Catholic Church; they no longer believed in celibacy. Among other Christians, that consensus had long since been reached following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Regardless of what the hierarchy might say, the people had spoken. In short, I concluded that celibacy was no longer a priestly obligation.

Conclusion

As I write these words, I’m not even sure I should be sharing their revelations. It would be very easy for readers to get the wrong idea judging harshly the young priests I’ve described (including myself) as hypocrites cynically unfaithful to a vow we had freely taken. It would be very easy to be shocked, repelled and (for Catholics) to feel somehow misled and even betrayed.

In retrospect however, I see it quite differently. As I knew them, the men in question had in no way abandoned their faith. They remained very good priests – compassionate, understanding, idealistic and kind. We were simply products of our time characterized by a sexual revolution that touched everyone.

Even more (as the great German theologian Karl Rahner put it) the young men in question were not sinners; rather, we had been sinned against. And the offending party was an ecclesiastical institution whose stubborn regulations had laid a nearly unbearable and certainly unnecessary burden on the shoulders of good willed, highly motivated youths who had accepted obligatory celibacy with little notion of its implications outside the seminary’s protective walls. We simply wanted to be priests, not celibates.

I’d go even further. The priests I’m talking about were implicitly or explicitly influenced by the very theological studies I’ve been celebrating here. Following Vatican II those studies affirmed the insights of secular disciplines such as history, sociology and psychology. Freud, Jung, and their successors had shown that the celibate decision involved much more than just saying no. And yet, no one was there to help priests figure out what that “more” entailed. In other words, many of us had moved from Rohr’s first “order” box into inevitable “disorder” around our celibacy. It would take most of us a long time and many errors before we could get to “reorder.”

(Next time: Political disorder)  

In Memoriam Rev. John Rausch (1945-2020)

Peggy and I were shocked Sunday night when we received the stunning news that Fr. John Rausch, a very dear friend of ours, had died suddenly earlier in the day. John was a Glenmary priest whom we had known for years. He was 75 years old.

At one point, John lived in a log cabin below our property in Berea, Kentucky. So, we often found ourselves having supper with him there or up at our place. John was a gourmet cook. And part of having meals with him always involved watching his kitchen wizardry while imbibing Manhattans and catching up on news – personal, local, national, and international. Everything was always interspersed with jokes and laughter.

That’s the kind of man John was. He was a citizen of the world, an economist, environmentalist, prolific author, raconteur, and social justice warrior. But above all, John was a great priest and an even better human being full of joy, love, hope, fun, and optimism.

Yes, it was as a priest that John excelled. Everyone who knew him, especially in the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, would agree to that. Ordained in 1972 [just seven years after the closure Vatican II (1962-’65)] John never wavered in his embrace of the Church’s change of direction represented by the Council’s reforms.

According to the spirit of Vatican II, the Church was to open its windows to the world, to adopt a servant’s position, and to recognize Jesus’ preferential option for the poor.  John loved that. He was especially fervent in endorsing Pope Francis’ extension of the option for the poor to include defense of the natural environment as explained in the pope’s eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. (To get a sense of John’s concept of priesthood and care for the earth, watch this al-Jazeera interview that appeared on cable TV five years ago.)

His progressive theology delighted John’s audiences who accepted the fact that Vatican II remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, as two successive reactionary popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) subtly attempted to reverse conciliar reforms, and as the restorationist priests and bishops they cultivated tried mightily to turn back the clock, John’s insistence on the new orthodoxy was entirely refreshing.

I remember greatly admiring the shape of John’s homilies that (in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium) were always well-prepared and followed the same pattern:

  1. He’d begin with two or three seemingly unrelated vignettes involving ordinary people with names and usually living in impoverished Appalachian contexts.
  2. For the moment, he’d leave those word-pictures hanging in the air. (We were left wondering: “What does all that have to do with today’s readings?”)
  3. Then, on their own terms, John would explain the day’s liturgical readings inevitably related to the vignettes, since Jesus always addressed his teachings to the poor like those in John’s little stories.
  4. Finally, John would relieve his audience’s anxiety about connections by perfectly bringing the vignettes and the readings together – always ending with a pointed challenge to everyone present.

The result was invariably riveting, thought-provoking and inspiring. It was always a special day whenever Fr. John Rausch celebrated Mass in our church in Berea, Kentucky.

Nevertheless, John’s social justice orientation often did not resonate with those Catholics out-of-step with official church teaching. These often included the already mentioned restorationist priests and bishops who harkened back to the good old days before the 1960s. Restorationist parishioners sometimes reported Fr. Rausch to church authorities as “too political.”

But Fr. Rausch’s defense was impregnable. He was always able to appeal to what he called “the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.” That was the way he described the radical social encyclicals of popes from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) through Pius XII’s Quadragesima Anno (1931), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015).

John was fond of pointing out that all of those documents plus a host of others were consistently critical of capitalism. They favored the demands of working classes, including living wages, the right to form labor unions, and to go out on strike. Other documents were critical of arms races, nuclear weapons, and modern warfare in general. “You can’t get more political than that!” John would say with his broad smile.

All that perseverance on John’s part finally paid off when his local very conservative bishop was at length replaced by a Franciscan friar whom I’ve described elsewhere as “channeling Pope Francis.” I’m referring to John Stowe whose brown-robe heritage had evidently shielded him from the counter-reforms of the two reactionary popes previously mentioned.

When Bishop Stowe assumed office, he evidently recognized John as a kindred spirit. He respected his knowledge of Appalachia and his desire to connect Church social teachings with that context.  So, the new bishop asked John to take him on an introductory tour of the area. John was delighted to oblige. He gave Bishop Stowe the tour John himself had annually led for years. It included coal mines, the Red River Gorge, local businesses, co-ops, social service agencies, local churches, and much more. John became Bishop Stowe’s go-to man on issues involving those represented by the experience.

But none of that – not John’s firm grounding in church social teaching, not his success as a liturgist and homilist, not his acclaimed workshops on economics and social justice, not his long list of publications, nor his advisory position with Bishop Stowe – went to John’s head.

He never took himself that seriously. He was always quick with the self-deprecating joke or story.

In fact, he loved to tell the one about his short-lived movie career. (I’m not kidding.)  It included what he described as his “bedroom scene” with actress Ashley Judd. It occurred in the film, “Big Stone Gap.” I don’t remember how, but in some way, the film’s director needed a priest for a scene where Ms. Judd was so deathly ill that they needed to summon a member of the clergy. John was somehow handy. So, he fulfilled the cameo role playing himself at the bedside of Ashley Judd. (See for yourself here. You’ll find John credited as playing himself.) Right now, I find myself grinning as I recall John’s telling the tale. It always got a big laugh.

Other recollections of John Rausch include the facts that:

  • For a time, he directed the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
  • He also worked with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) introducing seminarians to the Appalachian context and its unique culture.
  • He published frequently in Catholic magazines and authored many editorials in the Lexington Herald-Leader. John’s regular syndicated columns reached more than a million people across the country. 
  • He had a strong hand in the authorship of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “At Home in the Web of Life.”
  • He led annual pilgrimages to what he called “the holy land” of Appalachia as well as similar experiences exploring the culture and history of the Cherokee Nation.
  • He was working on his autobiography when he died. (I was so looking forward to reading it!)

More Personally:

  • He graciously read, advised, and encouraged me on my own book about Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
  • I have fond memories of one Sunday afternoon when he invited me to a meeting in his living room with other local writers. We were to read a favorite selection from something each of us was working on.
  • John often came to my social justice related classes at Berea College to speak to students about Appalachia its problems, heroines and heroes. (Of course, to my mind, John ranked prominently among them.)
  • He gave a memorable presentation along those lines in the last class I taught in 2014. John was a splendid engaging teacher.

Peggy and I are still reeling from the unexpected news of this wonderful human being’s death. For the last day we’ve been sharing memories of John that are full of admiration, reverence, sadness – and smiles. It’s all a reminder of our own mortality and of the blessing of a quick, even sudden demise.

Along those lines, one strange thought that, for some reason, keeps recurring to me is that John’s passing (along with that of another dear friend last month) somehow gives me (and John’s other friends) permission to die.

I don’t know what to make of that. It might simply be that the two men in question (like Jesus himself) have gone before us and shown the way leading to a new fuller form of life. Somehow, that very fact makes the prospect of leaving easier. Don’t ask me to explain why or how.

Thank you, John.   

Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

“It’s Over” for the Catholic Church and Its Abusive Clergy

Pedophilia cartoon

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44

Last Thursday, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published an open letter to all bishops in the United States. The letter’s topic was the fallout surrounding the clerical abuse scandal. Its theme was “it’s over” – a refrain repeated seven different times in the document.

The repetition is relevant to the Gospel readings for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the episode of the “Widow’s Mite.” The story summarizes the attitude of Jesus towards clerical corruption in his own day – and in our own.

After visiting Jerusalem’s temple just before his own execution, Jesus concluded that Judaism as represented there had no future. His words and actions expressed his clear conclusion, “It’s over!” He gives up on the temple system. His despair tempts me to give up on the Catholic Church.

Before I get to that, let me fill you in about the NCR letter and the apparent meaning of its catchphrase which implies that the Catholic Church has no more future than the Jerusalem temple Jesus cursed.

“It’s over,” the editors said because:

• The clerical abuse scandal has brought the church to rock bottom.
• This is a question of such rot at its heart that the corruption threatens the very identity and unity of the Catholic Church not only in the United States, but worldwide.
• The feds have now entered the picture ordering chancery officials not to destroy the paper trail they’ve been hiding for more than 50 years.
• Abusers and their enablers have been recognized as federal criminals.
• The bishops have nowhere left to hide. Like the king in the familiar fable the bishops and clergy all stand naked before the world; we all realize that they have no clothes. They have lost moral authority.
• Even Washington’s Cardinal McCarrick abused boys and seminarians for decades.
• And the cover-ups go right to the top – to the Vatican itself. The hastily-sainted John Paul II “let wolves roam his flock” because of his falsely inflated idea of a “heroic priesthood” to which no one can any longer subscribe.
• Blaming gay priests for the crisis is so obviously yet another diversionary attempt to block the fundamental reforms required in a clerical culture that has demonstrated a basic ignorance of human sexuality.
• So is blaming Pope Francis who alone among recent popes has exhibited the courage to confront the problem and to remove from office clerics even at the highest levels of the hierarchy.
• The only reason for belated confessions of guilt on the part of bishops is that they have at last been caught with their pants down (literally!) beginning as far back as 1985.
• Without relentless journalistic investigation, clerical abuse would have continued unimpeded and remained covered-up.
• As a result, apologies, studies, conferences, and spiritual retreats for prayer and meditation all ring hollow.
• Only very fundamental changes have any hope of saving the church.
Absent such transformation, it’s over!

And that brings me to the familiar story of today’s Gospel reading, “The Widow’s Mite.” Contrary to what you’ve been told, it’s not about the widow’s generosity. It’s about her exploitation by a clergy every bit as corrupt as the popes, bishops and priests we’ve just been discussing.

As Mark tells it, Jesus and his friends are visiting Jerusalem for the Passover Feast during the final week of his life. They are in the Temple. On the previous day, they had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration there against the temple priesthood and its thievery from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” Soon the temple priesthood and scribal establishment will offer a reward of thirty pieces of silver for information leading to Jesus’ arrest. Judas will find himself seriously considering collecting that reward.

In the meantime, Jesus continues his on-going instruction about the corruption of the Temple System. In the episode before us, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood that Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

The standard way of treating this reading runs like this: (1) The widow in the Temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (2) follow her example (3) donate generously to your priest and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores today’s responsorial from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s reading, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests, exploit God’s favored poor.

With all of that in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard line.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (MK 13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24). The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite. Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

With Jesus’ warning ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He calls attention to the hypocrisy and injustice of the whole situation and leaves the temple in disgust. For him, in the words of the NCR’s Open Letter, “It’s over!”

And that returns me to my own questions about my commitment to the Catholic Church. Increasingly and reluctantly, I’m feeling that’s over too. Having just moved to the Northeast (Westport, CT), I’ve been searching for a community that honors the progressive teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) – still the church’s official teaching – with its emphasis on social justice, engaged homilies, ecumenism, and vibrant liturgies.

So, I did an online search for “progressive Catholic Churches near Westport.” The search came up empty – except for a site denouncing progressive Catholicism. Nonetheless, a friend directed me to a church in Norwalk (a 15-minute drive from my new location). I joined a men’s group that meets in the church basement each Saturday morning at 7:00 to discuss the next day’s liturgical readings. However, I soon discovered that one of the ground rules for discussion is “No politics!”

That so leaves me out! The world is burning. And critical, liberationist readings of the Jesus tradition offer perhaps our best hope of putting out the raging fire. Where else but church do hundreds of people come together in every community across the country to ponder questions of goodness, truth, and their relationship to Ultimate Reality? Yet good-willed men are told: Don’t connect this with that.

Why continue?

Until that sort of thing changes, for me it is indeed over. And in leaving in disgust, I’m following the example of Jesus himself.

The Salvation of Our Country and Church Comes from Iranians and Mexican Immigrants (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 4th Sunday in Lent: 2CHR 36:14-16, 19-24; PS 137:1-6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3: 14-21

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Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us to look for salvation in unexpected places. In fact, it strongly suggests that the very ones our culture despises, and our church relegates to second class status have been chosen by God to save us. Specifically, I’m talking about Iranians relative to our country and Latin Americans in relation to the church.

Take Iranians first. (They are called “Persians” in today’s first reading.) There, one of them (King Cyrus) is identified in Chronicles as Judah’s “messiah” or anointed. The identification is given even though Cyrus was not a Jew, but an adherent of Zoroastrianism, a religion even more foreign to Judaism than Islam. Yet according to Chronicles, this Iranian king was God’s servant chosen to end Judah’s long exile in Babylon (modern day Iraq). That’s what I mean by salvation coming from an unexpected place.

Then in the second reading from Ephesians, Paul refers to Jesus of Nazareth in those same Cyrusian terms. Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed, Paul says – and an unlikely “Christ” at that. After all, the Nazarene was the son of an unwed teenage mother; an refugee-immigrant in Egypt at the beginning of his life; a working stiff rather than a priest or scholar; possessed by the devil (according to the religious establishment); a drunkard and whore-monger according to those same sources; an enemy of the temple and state; and a victim of torture and of capital punishment in the form reserved for terrorists. Nevertheless, just as Cyrus brought Judah back from their 70 year-long exile in Babylon, Paul says, Jesus, the executed criminal, brought all of us back from the metaphorical death caused by living according to the deathly standards of the world. In Paul’s eyes, those standards obscure the gifts of God by convincing us that we have to earn life rather than accepting everything as God’s gift. Or as Paul puts it: “salvation is not the result of works,” but of God’s graciousness.

That graciousness (John the evangelist reminds us in today’s Gospel reading) is unending; it covers all the bases, has no exceptions and lasts forever. It turns each of us into Christs – into God’s only son (or daughter) – into saviors of the world. In other words, each one of us is the unlikeliest Christ of all.

O.K. each of today’s readings tell us to look for salvation in unexpected places – even within ourselves. But what are we post-moderns to understand by “salvation” itself? Think about it. The answer should be clear both in terms of country and church. In both spheres our condition can only be described as absolutely desperate and in need of deliverance.

Politically, we’re currently like lemmings rushing headlong towards the final precipice. Under the aegis of the organization Noam Chomsky calls “the most dangerous in the history of the world,” our Republican “leaders” are in denial about the greatest peril the human race has ever faced. Here I’m referring to climate chaos that threatens to deprive our grandchildren and even us and our children of the most basic necessities of life.

Besides that, our rulers insist on developing nuclear arsenals whose destructive power boggles the mind. And they seem extremely anxious to unleash them. The U.S. commander in chief has gone so far as to wonder aloud, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” If we’re not looking for salvation from all of that, we must be asleep entirely.

And as for faith . . . My own Christian community, the Catholic Church, it is in dire need of salvation too. It is crumbling before our eyes.

My parish in Berea, Kentucky is a case in point. There we’ve had a series of restorationist pastors hell-bent on reinstating the pre-Vatican II order I grew up in during the 1940s and ’50s.
Clericalism is their watchword and guiding vision. Outside the sanctuary, they wear birettas and cassocks. While celebrating Mass they seem rule-bound, uncreative, unthoughtful, and totally oblivious not only to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but to Pope Francis’ more recent summons to radical change as described in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (LS).

As a result of such backwardness, church numbers are dwindling drastically. Parishioners I’ve seen at Mass every Sunday over my 46 years at St. Clare’s have gone missing. Alternatively, and like my own children, they have joined the ranks of the second largest denomination in the country – Former Catholics. Loyal progressives in my parish are at their wits’ end wondering how to cope with leadership tone-deaf to their desperate voices.

My own response has been to recognize what theologian and church historian, Figueroa Deck has identified as the “sleeping giant” of Latino Catholicism. That has me attending our parish’s Hispanic Mass at 11:00, rather than the increasingly reactionary and Euro-centric Anglo Mass at 9:00. I “go to the eleven o’clock” not only to escape the deadly retrogression of 9:00 a.m. antiquarianism, but in subconscious recognition, I think, of the fact that our Hispanic parishioners represent the cutting, salvific edge of the Catholic Church.

For decades now, the Latin American Church has embodied Catholicism’s most vital element.That’s personified in Pope Francis himself, our first Latin American pontiff, who I’m told is rejected by our current parish leadership – the same way Washington rejects Latin American immigrants.

Francis, of course, comes from Argentina. He’s followed the lead of Latin American theologians of liberation with his adoption of Jesus’ own “preferential option for the poor.” That entails recognition that the poor (including, most prominently, our immigrant population) know more about the world than our rich leaders – or even than us in more comfortable classes.

I mean, immigrants possess a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” while the rest of us see only one side of what’s occurring before our eyes. On the one hand, the daily observation of the undocumented (as our motel cleaners, nannies, gardeners, construction workers, and fellow parishioners) tells them what it means to be a white American. On the other, they know intimately the experience of exclusion by those same whites.

Immigrants know how the economy works for whites, and how it excludes browns and blacks. They know that rich capitalists and their money enjoy absolute freedom to cross borders, regardless of the negative impacts such mobility might (and does!) have on Global South economies. At least subconsciously, migrant workers recognize the simultaneous contradiction of their being excluded from such mobility, despite the fact that labor is an even more important part of the economic equation than capital. So even though the law (created by the rich) forbids them, immigrants vote with their feet to claim the rights the system unjustly denies them. Our “immigration problems” are the result.

The double consciousness of immigrants can be salvific for the church. If its expressions are heeded, they can save the church. As expressed by our Hispanic Pope Francis, the undocumented in our midst call us to a church where (in the words of The Joy of the Gospel) we cannot leave things as they presently are” (JG 25), but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74).

Similarly, in the world of politics, Iranians (the descendants of Chronicles’ Cyrus the Great) inspired this time by Islam are calling us to changes in foreign policy. They implore us to just leave them (and their oil) alone. Ironically, their desire is that they be liberated from a kind of Babylonian captivity that places them under the jackboot of the United States and (still more ironically) Israel.

What I’m suggesting is that the descendants of Cyrus are still God’s instrument of our salvation. So in our present desperate context, are marginalized Catholic immigrants whose presence reminds us of Pope Francis’ wisdom and of the penetrating understanding of life that comes from refugees and the immigrants our government’s free trade policies create on the one hand, while refusing them sanctuary on the other.

Both bring us the new ways of relating to God, the new narratives and the new paradigms salvation requires.

Why the Church? (Sunday Homily)

Sisters

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

After binge-watching The Keepers last weekend, it’s difficult for me not to connect Ascension Sunday with the church as depicted there. Apart from the fascination stemming from the horrific events portrayed, the docuseries depicts a Catholic Church that has all but disappeared.

Before the 1970s, priests and women religious were plentiful. At my parish, St. Viator, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, our Viatorian priests all living together in the rectory were Fathers Fitzpatrick, Ranahan, Ryan, Burke, and Devereux – along with Brother Kelzer. In addition, women religious dominated our school. Every year a different Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught me there. To this day, I remember them daily in my prayers: Sisters Helen Clare, Mary Jane, Loyola, Rose Anthony, Mary Paul, Cyril, Rita Marie, and Irma. My mind can still see them at daily Mass where their community filled three long pews. It seemed like there were about 20 of them.

Then came Vatican II (1962-’65), and that was the end of that. With the great reforms, everything was called into question: the nature of the church itself, the priesthood, the communal religious life. Priests and nuns left their “consecrated lives” in droves.

Observation of today’s “feast day,” the Ascension of Jesus, was part of it all. Time was when Jesus’ Ascension was celebrated on Thursday as a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word is mixed with its alternative.

According the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires’ wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

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A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.