Can Joe Biden Save American Catholicism from the Far Right?

Joe Biden and Pope Francis.
President Joe Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has.

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A few hours after agitators incited by President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, addressed the reconvened representatives, along with a vast television audience. She denounced the “shameful attack on our democracy” and resolved that the House would complete its certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Pelosi, a Catholic, then took a religious turn. “Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany,” she said. “On this day of revelation, let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.” She also quoted a prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; where there is hatred, let us bring love; where there is despair, let us bring hope.” Biden has quoted this prayer often. Three weeks earlier, when the electoral votes were first certified, he had offered the saint’s words—“where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light”—as something like a mission statement for his Presidency.

Those invocations represent a striking turnabout. In the past four years, several million traditionalist American Catholics have made the impious, twice-divorced, religiously tone-deaf celebrity mogul Donald Trump their standard-bearer. Now progressive Catholics are placing their hopes in Biden, who is only the second Catholic President, after John F. Kennedy. Biden’s unfailing attendance at Sunday Mass, his visits to the churchyard graves of his first wife and daughter (who were killed in a car crash, in 1972), and his practice of carrying a rosary are taken as emblems of that public servant’s deep faith. His late-in-life election, moderate temperament, and just-folks manner prompt comparisons with Pope Francis—even as the new President’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage has prompted the head of the U.S. bishops to form a “working group” to examine his positions, and several bishops to declare that he should be denied Communion. (During the campaign, Biden turned against the Hyde Amendment, which proscribes the use of federal funds to support abortion services, after decades of tacit support for it.) Set the rosary aside, and old-school Joe Biden is the kind of flexible, independent-minded Catholic whom many bishops have spent their careers taking to task—and many progressive Catholics see as akin to themselves. In a new book, Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who is a professor of theology at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, observes that “Biden’s presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious, even salvific ones. This Catholic president is now called upon to heal the moral damage inflicted upon the nation by Trump, the pandemic, and globalization.”

The events of January 6th upped the salvific ante and the brief for Biden to be a “Reconciler-in-Chief.” With the election to the Senate of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor from Georgia, some envision a resurgence of the religious progressivism that shaped the civil-rights movement. Catholics hope that the Church, with its moral authority diminished owing to its bishops’ failings on clerical sexual abuse, can be a trusted actor in national affairs again—that it can counter the “ ‘zombie’ ideas” (as Faggioli calls them) of Christian nationalism. The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and vice versa.

Catholics have sought convergence between Rome and U.S. politics before, and the present political culture is partly shaped by such aspirations. In 1987, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor (soon to convert to Catholicism), declared that a “Catholic moment” in American public life was at hand. The Reagan Administration had conjoined the President’s anti-Communist conservatism to that of Pope John Paul II, who, after conducting a nine-city U.S. tour, was at the apogee of his influence in this country. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, was as prominent as any senator or governor. Antonin Scalia had been seated on the Supreme Court. Through John Paul’s efforts, Catholicism was strongly identified with the struggle for political freedom and human rights in Soviet-controlled Poland. Neuhaus saw the moment as one in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States would assume “its rightful role” in providing “a religiously informed public philosophy” to what he saw as an incoherent, decadent, post-sixties civil society.

Catholic theoconservatism has shaped Republican politics ever since, through an extensive network of political operatives, opinion-makers, academics, and philanthropists. It has set itself against the presentation of religious belief as merely a private matter, seen in a speech that Mario Cuomo gave in 1984, when he was governor of New York, in which he explained that, although as a Catholic he believed abortion to be wrong, he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Theocons disdain that position. In their view, a Catholic in public life should affirm his or her faith openly, strive to conform public policy to Church teachings, and reject the notion that the separation of church and state forces officials to check their faith at the door.

Today, outward measures suggest that a different Catholic moment is at hand. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics. So is Speaker Pelosi. So are at least eight of Biden’s Cabinet nominees. So is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the terms of engagement have changed dramatically. The Church to which these people all belong is nearly as divided as the country, and American politics is now suffused with religion-as-public-philosophy, even as theocons decry, as the former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, did in 2019, the left’s “organized destruction” of traditional religion.

The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court made the change manifest. Barrett, raised a Catholic in Louisiana, is a graduate of an all-girls Catholic high school and of Notre Dame Law School, whose faculty she later joined. Since childhood, she has belonged to the People of Praise, a Catholic movement with a structure that places female members under the authority of men. A traditionalist—mentored by Scalia and publicly opposed to legal abortion—Barrett was a theocon’s dream high-court nominee. Yet, at her confirmation hearings for both the U.S. Court of Appeals, in 2017, and the Supreme Court, this past October, she took the Cuomo-esque position that theoconservatives have long derided: she insisted that her “personal convictions” and “policy preferences” should have no bearing on her rulings from the bench. (Nevertheless, last Tuesday, she joined the five other conservative Justices—three of them Catholics—in rejecting the argument that a Food and Drug Administration rule that women seeking to obtain the so-called abortion pills must do so in person from a health-care provider rather than by mail places an undue burden on those women during the pandemic, which has made doctors’ offices and clinics less accessible.)

Biden’s stance is something like the inverse of Barrett’s: as his public prominence has increased, he has grown more effusive about his Catholicism. In his memoir from 2007, “Promises to Keep,” he recalled that, fifteen years earlier, when asked to speak about faith and public service, at Georgetown University, where his son Hunter was a student, he hesitated: “It was a topic I had always shied away from because it makes me a little uncomfortable to carry religion into politics.” But the experience, he went on, made clear that Catholicism’s message about the perils of the abuse of power by the powerful had “always been the governing force in my political career.” His faith was prominent in the memoir itself, and in 2016, when he received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, awarded to Catholics who have “enriched the heritage of humanity” through their work, he called it “the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life.” During the 2020 campaign, he traced his view on immigration to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”—a favored expression of the Catholic left. Last June, in a eulogy for George Floyd, he cited “Catholic social doctrine, which taught me that faith without works is dead,” and quoted from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”

Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has. Shortly after his election, in 2013, Francis said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” suggesting that the Church had become “obsessed” with those topics. In 2019, he expressed support for gay civil unions. Last week, he announced that women are now expressly permitted to serve on the altar during Mass, thereby rejecting the traditionalist view that sacramental authority belongs to priests, who, according to Church teaching, must be male.

Shortly after Election Day, Francis sent Biden an inscribed copy of his new book, “Let Us Dream.” The progressive Catholic commentariat had already lit up with exhortations about the ways the new President might draw on the Pope’s key themes—mercy, concern for the poor, attention to the common good—to undo the Trump Administration’s inhumane policies. But it’s worth noting that, on many issues, Francis is much more progressive than Biden. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” the Pope traced the destruction of the planet to globalized liberal capitalism, in which strong countries put “selfishness” in place of the common good. In October, in “Fratelli Tutti,” he spelled out a view of universal human solidarity to extend his vision of a society in need of dramatic reordering. His positions bring to mind those of the self-described democratic socialists who are the architects of the Green New Deal—which Biden distanced himself from in a debate with Trump, saying, “The Green New Deal is not my plan.”

How, then, might President Biden draw on his faith as he takes office and leads the country? There are two obvious options. The first is that he could move to the center, through an appeal to his Catholic roots. On the Sunday after the riot at the Capitol, Pope Francis encouraged public figures to “calm souls” and “promote national reconciliation.” Biden could use the language of faith—the human family, my brother’s keeper, a common destiny—to reach out to Republicans disaffected by the Trump-incited hard right, and gain their coöperation in containing the spread of COVID-19, doing the work of reconciliation in the process.

Alternatively, Biden could draw on Francis’s critique of globalized society to move the emboldened Democratic majorities in Congress emphatically leftward. He could cite the vastly popular Pope to help make the case for regular payments to pandemic-stricken families (a form of basic income), tax and banking reform, a national minimum-wage increase, debt forgiveness, and aggressive action on climate change. An obvious precedent is President Kennedy, who shifted left after his election, bolstered, in part, by the progressive teachings of Pope John XXIII.

Or he could combine the two options, taking an approach rooted in both Francis’s pontificate and his own career. Paradoxically, the Pope’s moderate temperament and reputation have served to advance his progressive positions. In the same way, Biden’s record as a centrist and his profile as a hymn-quoting churchgoer could give him cover as he tacks left, much as Francis has, using the language of the common good to advance policies—refreshed infrastructure, a green jobs program, health care for all—that would actually benefit the disaffected whites in the heartland who are presently hooked on Trump. Strong employment, social stability, and a government seen acting concretely for the common good would help bring about national reconciliation with a Franciscan accent. As a side effect, joint efforts between the Biden Administration and the Vatican—on the climate, immigration, and human rights—might prompt the Vatican to be more progressive in its approach to laypeople, women and gay people among them, in leadership positions.

Of course, Biden faces harsh opposition, not least from other Catholics. The morning of the Inauguration, as Biden went to St. Matthew the Apostle, the Catholic cathedral in the capital, for a Mass attended by Speaker Pelosi and other government figures, the Catholic bishops released a long missive by their conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, expressing an eagerness to work with the new President, but upbraiding him for holding positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity,” and implying that Biden’s approach to Catholicism posed a threat to religious freedom. The same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new President, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.

In this moment, it’s strange to think of Joe Biden, for so long a workhorse legislator in a blue blazer, as a redemptive figure. It’s strange that progressives, who are generally leery of Vatican authority, are frankly hoping that American politics will be inspired by the Pope—and hoping that a Pope might move a Democratic President further to the left. It’s strange that a Church whose followers have been harmed and angered by decades of negligence on clerical sexual abuse can still be seen as a source of civic healing. And yet the second Catholic President can hardly afford not to draw on his religion; with the country wracked by a pandemic, a recession, and political violence, he is going to need every source of reconciliation and moral authority available to him.

Complete Article HERE!

The Catholic church is still making excuses for paedophilia

Cardinals around the world are joining the pope at a forum on tackling abuse. But only radical reform can solve the crisis

The Catholic church needs Pope Francis to come out fighting on the issue of abuse. But the signs are not good.

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When the first meeting in the Vatican of cardinals from around the world to discuss clerical sexual abuse was announced, hopes were high among Catholics. Finally, it seemed, the courageous, mould-breaking Pope Francis was going to force through root-and-branch reforms to tackle the scandal that has done such damage to the reputation of the institution he leads.

Yet even before 180 cardinals assemble on Thursday in Rome for this unprecedented four-day summit, the chance of such prayers being answered is looking increasingly remote. The Vatican press office has been downplaying the event as simply an opportunity to remind senior clerics of the patchy efforts that global Catholicism has made this past quarter of a century to address the thousands upon thousands of cases of priests molesting, abusing and traumatising children in their care.

To be fair, a reminder is no bad thing, since there is a long list of bishops around the globe who still make negative headlines because they refuse to take this crisis seriously, and put protecting the institution before the victims of predator priests.

Even in the Vatican itself, the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has refused a very basic request from the Commission for the Protection of Minors, set up by Francis in 2014, to send a letter acknowledging receipt of every new report of abuse that reaches it.

There is so much that the summit could insist be done better, but it will require the pope to come out fighting. And on that score, the omens are not good. On his return flight from his latest overseas trip – to a World Youth Day gathering in Panama at the end of last month – Francis offered scant encouragement. “The problem of abuse will continue,” he told reporters, as if it were as inevitable as the sunrise. “It is a human problem.”

He sounds as much in denial as his predecessors. When the first shocking disclosures of clerical abuse emerged in the 1990s, Pope John Paul II referred to those clerics who abused children as a “few bad apples”. His successor, Benedict XVI, pointed an accusing finger instead at the high number of closeted gay men in the clergy. Though it flies in the face of all secular, scientific and psychosexual orthodoxy, the leaders of Catholicism (as many as 80% of them gay themselves, according to a new book by sociologist Frederic Martel) persist in equating same-sex adult sexual attraction with the violent rape of children by grown men.

Francis resorted to an even more outdated explanation in September last year. In language that owed much to medieval theology, he blamed it all on the devil, a malign force tempting otherwise good priests to sexually abuse children.

So is there really any possibility that this gathering in Rome might just be a road-to-Damascus moment for Catholicism in a crisis that has shaken it to its core? Naively, perhaps, I continue to hope so. Back in June 2011 I wrote in these pages of the profound blow to my own faith of learning that our beloved priest and family friend, Father Kit Cunningham – who had married us and baptised our children, one of whom was named after him – was not the eccentric but essentially good man of God that I had always believed him to be, but a child abuser whose past crimes had been known to his religious superiors, who didn’t breathe a word of it.

The logical thing would have been to walk out then, but I clung to the notion that the failings of individuals didn’t make redundant the Catholicism that is so much a part of me. And so I have persisted, but it has not helped when church leaders trot out the same discredited excuses in place of mature reflection on how things need to change.

Perhaps the most misleading excuse given is that Catholicism is just the same as others, including the BBC, that have faced charges over harbouring those who abuse children. However, a range of studies suggests that Catholicism is different. The number of paedophiles found in the male population at large is usually put at anywhere up to 4%. Yet the recent Australian Royal Commission on child sex abuse by Catholic priests suggests the figure in clerical ranks is as high as 7%. That’s almost double, and should be ringing alarm bells.

Even the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has suggested that the absence of women in leadership roles plays a part. Statistically, women are far less likely to sexually abuse children. Yet Catholicism clings to the almost laughable explanation that, because there were only men at the Last Supper, only men can be priests.

The product of this stubbornness is a secretive, male culture at the top of Catholicism where large numbers of priests routinely break their vows of celibacy. It is an appalling moral failure and needs to end now, but that will involve rethinking an entire approach to sexuality in Catholicism that is peculiar, punitive and often plain perverse. The Jesus of the gospels had almost no interest in such matters. Why does the Church leadership? It is a question that would take more than four days to answer, were it even to make it on to the agenda in Rome this week.

Instead, expect more make-do-and-mend, fine words, dramatic gestures, and then crossing of fingers and hoping it will all go away.

It won’t. And faithful but despairing Catholics will continue quietly to depart the pews.

Complete Article HERE!

The Catholic Church proves incapable of exorcising clergy sex abuse — again

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks in Baltimore on Nov. 12.

IT IS EVIDENT that the Catholic Church is incapable on its own of exorcising the scourge of clergy sex abuse. The scandal raged unchecked for decades and, even after it was exposed in 2002 by the Boston Globe , has been met by the church hierarchy with denial, temporizing, stone walling and half-measures.

Even as the bishops of America’s 196 Catholic dioceses and archdioceses gathered in Baltimore Monday to grapple with the latest major revelations — a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report from August detailing decades of abuse involving more than 1,000 victims and at least 300 priests — they were stopped in their tracks by an abrupt message from the Vatican, which asked them to hold off. That intercession arrived along with a warning from Pope Francis’s ambassador in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who seemed to scoff at the proposal, which the bishops had been set to vote on, to establish a lay commission that would assess bishops’ misconduct — “as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves,” as he put it.

That remark crystallized the arrogance that has often characterized the church’s stance even as countless exposés have laid bare the culpability of its leaders. From high and low, the church has broadcast its conviction that its own transgressions are no worse than that of other institutions; that state statutes of limitations that shield dioceses from lawsuits should be preserved; that no foothold may be allowed for mechanisms to discipline bishops who have enabled abuse by transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish.

Voices of moral clarity have been heard from within the church, urging genuine change. “Brother bishops, to exempt ourselves from this high standard of accountability is unacceptable and cannot stand,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a speech to the gathered bishops Monday following that of Mr. Pierre. “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions.”

Yet, more often than not, those voices have been ignored.

The pontiff has summoned bishops from around the world to the Vatican for a meeting to address the scandal in February; this summit, we are urged to believe, will once and for all set the church on a path toward surmounting the blight of abuse. The fact of that pending event was the proffered pretext for the church’s request that the U.S. bishops put off two items on their agenda this week in Baltimore: establishing the lay commission to review complaints against bishops, and adopting a code of conduct for themselves — the first such codified ethical guidelines.

The agenda was modest, and Rome’s intervention is telling. Again and again, the Vatican pays lip service to the suffering of victims. Again and again, it undercuts its own assertions of contrition.

Complete Article HERE!

What a debate about Pope Francis’s supposed liberalism says about the future of Catholicism

Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli argued over Francis’s legacy last week.

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Two high-profile Catholic thought leaders duked it out last week in a debate over the five-year legacy of Pope Francis — and what his papacy means for a church in crisis.

Longtime intellectual rivals Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat engaged in a conversation on Pope Francis, hosted by Fordham University in New York. The debate ultimately developed into a far broader question: How far should the church change in dialogue with modern sexual ethics when it comes to issues like women priests, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage?

And — perhaps even more importantly — the conversation turned broader still, as both participants asked if change should be seen as a theologically necessary part of the Catholic tradition.

Faggioli, a self-professed liberal Catholic, and Douthat, a conservative, have long expressed differing views on Francis’s papacy, and on the trajectory of the Catholic Church more generally through bold rhetoric on Twitter.

Since the beginning of Francis’s time as pope, much secular media attention has focused on what, to non-Catholics, have appeared to be relaxed stances on usually taboo issues for Catholics. Francis’s papacy, while changing little in terms of Catholic doctrine, has nevertheless made welcoming those who fail to follow that doctrine (whether on abortion, LGBTQ issues, or divorce) into the Catholic community a priority.

For example, Francis opened a temporary window for women who have had abortions to seek forgiveness from the church in 2015. One of his most famous early statements may have been asking “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality, although Francis has elsewhere maintained traditional Catholic doctrine.

Douthat, a Catholic convert, has frequently been critical of what he deems Francis’s divisive tactics, including using unofficial or “leaked” communications to the media to informally express more controversial views. He also opposes a willingness to, in his view, upend church tradition for the sake of pacifying liberal attitudes and retaining church membership.

For his part, Faggioli, an admirer of the Francis pontificate, has frequently condemned Douthat as an intellectual dilettante, criticizing his lack of formal theological training and what he sees as Douthat’s partisan perspective on church issues.

Their personal disagreement masks a wider debate, not simply between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, or between “progressives” who want to change the church to fit contemporary cultural mores and “traditionalists” who want to preserve the church exactly as it was.

It’s a debate between those who see a degree of dynamism as already part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic, and those who see it as an exterior, dangerous force.

The debate on Francis is also a debate on the aftermath of Vatican II

Although Faggioli and Douthat’s debate was about the pope, it wasn’t just about the pope. Central to their disagreements were their perceptions of the effects of Vatican II (formally known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965), which explored if and how the church should adapt to a changing world.

At that point, Catholics the world over were still responding to the aftermath of World War II, and the Holocaust in particular, leading some Catholics to question the language and tone with which the church approached interfaith issues.

Those changes under Vatican II included an increased focus on ecumenical relations, and on Catholic-Jewish relations. But the relative liberalization of Vatican II (for example, eschewing Latin during Mass) has often been seen by later critics as paving the way for an acceptance of more extreme elements of “modernity,” such as the sexual revolution. That movement challenged the formal Vatican positions on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, and premarital sex more generally.

Official church doctrine has never changed on any of these positions (nor, should it be noted, has even the “liberal” Pope Francis ever sought to change them).

Still, the “spirit of Vatican II,” or its overall ecumenical ethos, is cited by proponents and critics alike to refer to post-Vatican-II liberalizing tendencies that exceed the remit of Vatican II’s more narrow reforms. To Vatican II’s critics, a broad definition of this spirit is responsible for a more general “liberalization” in the church.

The subsequent half-century or so of the Catholic Church has been marked by various popes’ differing responses to and reckoning with Vatican II, its spirit, and the question of what “moving forward” even means within a Catholic context. That brings us to the current debate — last week’s and among Catholics in general — around Pope Francis’s somewhat lax views.

Faggioli and Douthat’s debate reflected broader divides

Douthat, a perhaps more natural debater, took a more aggressive approach, referring to a coming “schism” and a “civil war” in the church, and saying that Francis’s approach risked fomenting a “crisis of papal authority itself.”

Speaking specifically about Francis’s opening to providing communion to remarried couples, Douthat warned that, by relaxing rules around communion, Francis risked promulgating the idea that “the papacy allows for changes around these contested issues of sexual ethic,” and thus challenging the idea — central to Catholic theology — that the church’s continuity on issues remains unchanged.

Faggioli, though, rejected Douthat’s very premise. Focusing on continuity as a metric for a “good” pope, he says, and “looking at Catholic doctrine in terms of continuity or discontinuity, in my mind, assumes one thing: that Christianity, at some point … was complete.”

Furthermore, Faggioli said his assessment of Francis’s perspective centered not on doctrine but on pastoral care. The church need not change its teachings, he said, but rather ask itself, “What can the Catholic Church do to make the faithful able to receive sacraments?”

For Douthat, Pope Francis represents a break with tradition so profound that it risks rendering a fundamental principle of Catholic thought irrelevant: the idea that the church exists in continuity with its past traditions and perspectives.

Citing the case of allowing parish priests license to grant communion to remarried Catholics, which Francis has quietly campaigned for, Douthat argued that such a procedure would, in practice, vitiate the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (because, in Catholic tradition, marriage is seen as an irreversible sacrament between the couple and God, divorce is not seen as legitimate).

It is, for Douthat and other Catholic conservatives, a back-door form of Catholic-sanctioned divorce. By advocating for it and similar reforms, Francis, in Douthat’s view, represents a dangerous figure for the church: one too willing to cede ground to modern liberalism.

Faggioli, though, argued that Douthat’s perspective — of “continuity” and “discontinuity” within church tradition — was flawed and ahistoric. He pointed out that Francis is not seeking to allow divorce — something that would be a striking change in church teaching — but only advocating that divorced and remarried couples be allowed to receive the sacrament of communion — and thus participate fully in church life.

Instead, Faggioli said, Douthat’s view failed to reflect the way in which Catholic tradition has long existed in dialogue with itself, and how interpretations of Scripture have consistently grown and developed over time. The Catholic tradition, Faggioli said, “is not a mineral, it’s an animal. It moves. It adapts. It grows.”

Decades after Vatican II, the church faces demographic and social upheaval

While Douthat and Faggioli differ on the degree to which the Catholic Church is in danger, it’s fair to argue that it is — if not in crisis — at least in flux.

Decades of sex abuse scandals have eroded public trust in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Mass attendance has drastically fallen in America and Europe, especially among young adults. There is an increasingly severe shortage of Catholic priests. And the face of Catholicism is changing, too. Catholicism is in decline in Western Europe and America, but drastically on the rise in Africa. Like it or not, the church is changing in demographics if not doctrine.

But the question remains: Where do we go from here?

The debaters’ differing perspectives may be as attributable to their methods as their politics. Douthat’s interest lies in the church as an institution; the questions he asks focus on that institution’s survival and transformation.

In many of his columns, as well as in his forthcoming book, To Change the Church?, Douthat approaches the church as a political scientist might, looking at how different conservative or modernizing factions have jockeyed for support and survival. His questions of “continuity” and “discontinuity” are questions one asks of an institution, rather than a faith.

Douthat comes to the study of the church as a zealous outsider, and that perspective — one that tends to see the church as a holistic, uniform body that, while sometimes under temporary threat, nevertheless remains intact — suffuses his work. That Francis seems to endanger that perceived unity makes him a threat.

Frequently during the debate, Douthat warned of the potential of a schism within the Catholic Church as a result of Francis’s developments: “Things can break … there is a deep conflict.”

Faggioli, however, is both a church historian and a trained theologian, whose concern is both with the church as an institution and with theology as a living, dynamic body of discourse, constantly being shaped by new questions and voices both inside and outside the academy.

As a theologian, he appears more comfortable with the often-murky process by which the exploration of ideas — theological debate — becomes calcified into church doctrine, and the way in which these ideas morph and change over time. Rather than arguing whether or not the church should adapt to shifting culture, he argued that a degree of dynamism is part and parcel of church tradition and always has been.

The Catholic Church’s priority should be on finding ways for the faithful to remain within the church, not expelling those who do not follow its teachings, he says. (And it’s important to stress, in this debate, neither Faggioli nor Francis is necessarily saying that its teachings should change. Faggioli’s point is about access, not ideas).

Both Douthat and Faggioli ask vital questions. And Douthat’s challenge — how does an institution address cultural change without losing its founding principles — is completely valid. Any answer that does not take seriously that for faithful Catholics, the doctrine being debated is a matter of weighty metaphysical truth, not just politics or optics, fails to appreciate the gravity of the question being asked.

Faggioli’s response — that “in order to get close to Jesus, there has to be some kind of discontinuity” — may provide “liberal” Catholics a viable alternative to Douthat’s reactionary historicism, and a way forward for a church that is both weighed down and grounded by its past.

Complete Article HERE!

The Queerest Week –Palm Sunday 2017

 

By Rev. Dr. Robert E. Shore-Goss

I have written queer theology for the last 27 years, and I now write about a period of 8 days, the queerest days that I can imagine. I am speaking from the moment that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey to God’s resurrection of Jesus from the death.

Now let me dispel a notion: I am not writing about LGBTQI concerns, they are included but not the focus this morning. Queer theory and queer stories focus usually on LGBTQI concerns and inclusion in history, but I am speaking about God’s dream for life and humanity, and that dream is very queer. It is God’s unconditional grace and love for creation and all life.

Let me define queer for a moment. To “queer” is to interfere or disrupt. It is to transgress exclusive categories, notions, boundaries, and all boxes. I queer Christianity because it has remained exclusive, often violent and oppressive of someone or some life. Queering exclusiveness is to interfere and spoil exclusiveness and make it more inclusive.

My colleague and friend Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng, understands queering as eliding dualism. Dualism is a destruction form of binary thinking used by dominant theologies, church leaders and politicians. It separates the world into male and female, culture and nature, the have and have-not, human and non-human, and so. For Patrick, God’s love is queer because it elides such thinking and behaviors. Dr. Justin Tanis comprehends queer as dawn or dusk, that liminal or ambiguous space between night and day. My deceased theologian and friend speaks of indecent and perverse. In Luke’s gospel, the Temple high priests bring a charge against Jesus before Pilate: “This man has perverted the nation.”

I have engaged with God’s Christ in Jesus of Nazareth. God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have made me “queer” and more so over time. I describe myself as “a queer seeker of God and disciple of an even queerer God.” Jesus laid the foundations of ministry and message of the companionship of empowerment or kindom of God as a “topsy-turvy and upside-down kindom. He opens God’s table to everyone and upsets nearly every religious Jew of his time. Just listen to the parables of Jesus—the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the mustard seed, the baker woman who sneaks leaven into 50 pounds of flour, and so on. They provoke and disrupt religious exclusivism that reserves God’s grace and favor for the chosen “holy.”

My often quoted author, Diarmuid O’Murchu, calls the parables as “enlightened confusion.”

The story Jesus told them turned their world upside-down,
Bombarding every certainty they knew.
The boundaries were disrupted,
Their sacred creeds corrupted,
Every hope they had constructed,
Was questioned to the core!
By the story ended,
Stretching meaning so distended,
What they had known for long before.

O’Murchu speaks about Jesus’ parables. But what if we understand the gospel stories of Jesus as a parable about God? God is queering in the story of Jesus on a massive and unprecedented scale, not since the big bang. God has incarnated in a human being—such a queer and scandalous notion. God is queering and communicating a thoroughly queer and radically inclusive love. All are beloved—all humanity, all life, and all creation. No on is left behind or out.

Let me point out the queer highlights of this week:

For Jesus, God was a king unlike all kings and rulers. God’s rule was “queer,” meaning “not fitting in, strange, at odds with, out of place, disruptive, blasphemous, revolutionary, dangerous, outside the box, or my word “mischievous.” It is a topsy-turvy non-ruling but luring us through unconditional gift and love. God’s strategy is never coercive but always luring us through unconditional grace and love.

The Temple high priest and his colleagues brought Jesus before Pilate with the charges: “He perverted the nation.” Here “perverted” means inverting religious values, hierarchies, breaking all sorts of purity codes and religious laws for the sake of compassion. Jesus was always out of place; a peasant was meant to be quiet and subservient to the rulers of the Temple. Jesus spoke out compassion and was not afraid to break religious rules to extend God’s compassion.
Let’s examine today’s gospel a little more carefully. Unfortunately, the distribution of palms on Palm Sunday has become a spiritual blessing for us today. Many Christians tie up their palms into a bow and hang the palm crosses in their homes. And I am not opposed to anyone doing so if you determine to ask God to make you a bit queerer. But Palm Sunday has a deeper meaning than just the palms. Jesus rides on donkey into Jerusalem accompanied by a ragtag group of male and female disciples.

Jesus enters Jerusalem or to use biblical scholar Warren Carter’s phrase “making an Ass of Rome:” The conflict between Jesus and Pilate begins the day that Jesus enters in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and praised as the “Son of David.”

Roman entrances into city were always triumphant. No red carpets, but soldiers trumpeting, followed by cadence war drums sounding the entrance of the conquering hero. In this case, it was Pilate who represented the triumphant Roman Empire and Emperor Tiberius. Days before Pilate rode on a war horse from the sea resort of Caesarea followed by marching his Roman legionnaires with standards, Pilate entered Jerusalem as conqueror and made it clear to the populace that the Rome was in charge of their city and their lives. They paraded and displayed extravagantly the power of Tiberius Caesar and Rome. It communicates Roman greatness and military power, reminding the crowds that they were conquered by the powerful Roman legions—the greatest power in the world blessed by the Gods. Augustine was the true Son of god Apollo, and the savior of the world.

But Jesus intends to literally make an ass of Pilate and Rome. He choreographs his own dramatic and symbolic entrance into Jerusalem. He queers some of the Roman ritual entry or rather mischievously reframes them as symbolic challenges. His entrance into Jerusalem reminds the Jews of their religious history in which God enters the holy city to serve, not dominate. He chooses an ass, not a war horse in which Pilate rode into the city. Matthew remembers the line from the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, your king is coming on an ass”(9:9). The rest of the verse states that your king comes triumphant and victorious, and humble riding an ass.

Jesus is recognized not as a king but more likely anti-king. He teaches humility, non-violence, compassion and love, forgiveness, and peace-making, empowerment through mutuality and service, not conquest and domination. God’s community is constituted by a new a kinship as children of God—not be wealth, prestige, gender, or ethnicity. It is constituted by God as Abba, our parent in love with all and equally. And God lives within us and in our midst.
Another example of this last week of Jesus’ life that reveals God’s queer activity among people as empowering mutual companionship is the Last Supper. Companionship is created when we share food together, and we eat with God in our midst. Companionship was based on exclusion but gathering together to eat with God and one another.

I want you to remember the video from Centering Prayer this morning, Eating Twinkies with God. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9N8OXkN0Rk It expresses the incarnational vision of the Last Supper and Jesus’ ministry of eating together with God and finding God present.

There is no question that for Jesus the Last Supper had to be open and inclusive. I cannot accept the readings of the Last Supper as an exclusive meal. It goes against the very queer nature of who Jesus was and who God is. People from the highways and byways were to be invited into the meals. It was populated with diversity: outcasts, prostitutes, abominable people, tax collectors, those folks that terrify Pharisees and Christians alike. He did not moralize, berate them how to change their lives, or threaten them that could not share the table if they did not change their ways.

In Christianity’s Dangerous Memory, Diarmuid O’Murchu describes Jesus’ parables, healings, and ministry. The description is equally applicable to his meals and his to Last Supper:

They defy the criteria of normalcy and stretch creative imagination toward subversive, revolutionary engagement. They threaten major disruption for a familiar manageable world, and lure the hearer (participant) into a risky enterprise, but one that has promise and hope inscribed in every fiber of the dangerous endeavor.

There were no hierarchies at table, no one in charge and in power. There were only those who voluntarily served others, gladly washed the feet of their companions, who assisted folks at table to heal from the years of religious abuse and oppression. And God was mischievously present through each other. Jesus encouraged them to dream a future with hope, with God with shared resources and the abundance of food created by the companions of the bread and the cup.
Jesus’ Last Supper, like all his meals, undid social ordinary patterns and hierarchical behaviors, introducing people into a new egalitarianism, an equality before one another and God. No Roman official like Pilate would ever serve food to another person, especially with a male lesser of status or serve even his wife. No religious Jew would invite men and women together at table, suspected impurity and sinfulness.

And then there is the radical service of Jesus at table that evening– washing the feet of his male and female disciples. This was the service of only household slaves or women. No free male would do such a washing service because it demeaned his masculinity and patriarchal authority. Jesus turns the social hierarchies inside out, breaking down the gender boundaries and social hierarchies. There is only table fellowship of mutual service and equals, revering those who were the socially least, and inviting the disciples to imitate Jesus in his act of foot-washing.

Finally, Jesus dies a cruel death inflicted by the powers of imperial domination and religious exclusivism, always an unholy marriage of violence. It is an ultimate queering of human expectation, God’s vulnerability and suffering on the cross. God understood vulnerability in the incarnated Christ on the cross, and God identified with the suffering Christ and the least and vulnerable humanity and life in history. We have no comprehension of the depths of God’s suffering for all suffering life, but we do have a window into the depth of God when Jesus told his disciples: “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” Abba God suffered and died with Christ out of compassion, for God has suffered with all suffering life and human life. God the Creator becomes vulnerable and experience suffering the incarnated Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit that groans and suffers with all created life. This is the queerest notion of God in history—God who becomes vulnerable and experiencing suffering. God is with us in so many unimaginable ways.

But the queer God surprised all of us. God said “no” to such violence and cruelty, God proclaimed a “yes to unconditional love” on Easter Sunday. Next Sunday I will speak how the queer God queers death for resurrected life!