Sunday, January 31, 2010

Exercise of Conscience Seems to Be the Only Answer to Government Quagmire

By Coleen Rowley

Editor’s Note: This article was first published 1/31/10 at The Huffington Post.

Twenty-five Minnesotans for Peace (including myself) recently traveled to Washington DC to give a message to our elected representatives before the President’s “State of the Union.” We were able to read the names of the 77 young people from Minnesota who have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in front of the White House. We then “threw our shoes at the occupation” after reading the messages and questions about the endless wars that we had inscribed on our "peace shoes" for later mailing to the White House. Finally some in our group committed an act of conscience by simply laying down on the sidewalk symbolizing the ongoing, enormous tragedy of the millions of civilian and soldier deaths. The mostly elderly participants were subsequently arrested and forced to spend 28 hours in the harsh conditions of the “DC lockup.”

The next evening we heard the President give another good speech emphasizing his wonderful vision for the future of our country through new job creation, improving educational opportunity, investment in America’s infrastructure, balancing the budget and a return to economic prosperity. The President only spoke of the costly wars and military build-up that he has chosen to escalate (against the advice of his own Ambassador Eikenberry) to Afghanistan towards the end of his “State of the Union” report.

But does not the tail wag the dog?

Obama’s speech left us baffled as it does not appear to us that the lives lost and trillions of dollars that have been poured into these counterproductive wars over the last eight years (and counting) have won any hearts or minds in the Mid-east nor have they succeeded in reducing the threat of international terrorism. So we asked a lot of questions.

Our peace delegation was able to meet with many of our Minnesota Congresspersons and/or their staffs (including Klobuchar, Franken, Kline, Oberstar and Ellison). However nobody on Capitol Hill was able to explain how it is possible to “win” or even what future benchmarks Congress could use to evaluate whether progress is being made toward that goal. The last time our government published any information quantifying international terrorism was in 2004 (less than 3 years into the wars) and, at that time, the level had increased exponentially. The State Department’s annual terrorism report was immediately discontinued. Over eight years after instituting the “war on terror,” the government must still want to keep the bad news a secret, even from Congress. If there is no way to even find out this basic information, how can Congress assess if the Af-Pak escalation is “working”? We were met with blank stares.

We then asked whether changes in the level of American casualties could be used to measure the progress. We mentioned General (ret’d) Barry McCaffrey’s dire prediction: “What I want to do is signal that this thing (Af-Pak escalation) is going to be $5 billion to $10 billion a month and 300 to 500 killed and wounded a month by next summer. That’s what we probably should expect. And that’s light casualties.” One young congressional staffer who has studied foreign policy and military affairs (but without any military experience of his own) told us that increased American deaths would not be relevant or helpful in determining the war’s effectiveness. I asked to know the number of funerals my Congressman Kline had been to for the soldiers in our district who had so far been killed in the wars or who had committed suicide as a result of the wars.

The last difficult question we posed to our elected Minnesota representatives was how can the reckless spending be brought under control and the national debt be reduced when an unprecedented $741 billion is to be spent on the military and wars this next year. (That’s the projected minimum. Many experts expect supplemental spending will push the 2010 total amount to $1 trillion.) A staffer told us that Congress raised the debt ceiling last month to an unfathomable $12 trillion! That debt figure is more than double the $5.6 trillion the Bush Administration had when it started the wars. The national debt reportedly comes to $100,000 for each American family! How can fiscal conservatives not question the trillions being wasted this way? How can President Obama’s hopes for economic prosperity be realized with a debt burden this high? Why are US military contractors allowed to gain huge war profits at the same time as saddling our children and grandchildren with crushing interest payments on this debt?

Our last terrible question was when will the other shoe fall? Our visit to DC happened to coincide with C-SPAN’s airing of former Senator Pete Domenici’s presentation to the members of a new bi-partisan, private sector debt commission being assigned to deal with the catastrophic rising debt. The elderly Domenici was practically in tears and hyperventilating as he pointed the press to a chart showing the United States’ steeply climbing debt burden as he announced in a trembling voice that all government programs and “entitlements” (except for the military) but obviously including social security, Medicare and Medicaid would be on the cutting block.

One has to wonder if the line on Domenici’s chart showing US debt going steeply up would mirror the one we are not allowed to know about the increase in international terrorism, as a consequence of U.S. pre-emptive wars, kidnappings, torture, etc.

In the end, our group had to leave Washington DC without the answers. But we do not intend to wait in silence for the politicians to respond. Since our current President and Congress do not appear capable of pulling the country out of the “war on terror” begun by the Bush Administration, it will, of necessity, fall to the common American people like ourselves to exercise our constitutional rights as well as our consciences to push for a peace process to end the bloody and costly quagmire.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What Happened to Mary Daly?

By Karen Doherty

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published on Doherty’s blogsite, Nihil Obstat. It's reprinted with permission.

Mary Daly, 81, died two weeks ago, mostly forgotten, certainly unshriven. Carolyn Moynihan, deputy editor of MercatorNet, noted that Daly “seems to have departed this life as a kind of orphan herself. The New York Times obituary notes that she ‘leaves no immediate survivors’. No family on earth? No father in heaven? I hope it really was not like that for Mary Daly at the end.”

After her two first two books, which stood the Catholic world on its head, Mary Daly spun off into the ether, writing books with titles like: Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage; and Quintessence . . . Realizing the Archaic Future. Daly created her own language, but most people weren’t interested in learning it. She lost her hold on the larger Catholic imagination.

In the 80s the lesbian herd moved past her, too, migrating on towards the mainstream – Ellen, The L Word, Rachael Maddow, Suze Orman, human rights, marriage rights and child rearing. The labrys pendant was lost or forgotten. Daly was, too.

Quintessential Irish Catholic girl

Mary Daly was the quintessential Irish Catholic girl. Born October 16, 1928, in Schenectady, NY, she went all through Catholic schools, and received a BA from the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY and a MA from Catholic University in Washington, DC. After earning her doctorate in religion from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1953, she went on to obtain two degrees from the University of Freiburg in Switzerland, since no U.S. institutions at the time offered theology doctorates to women.

Dr. Daly was hired as an assistant professor at Jesuit-run Boston College in 1967, when the school only enrolled men. She started as a reformist, and her first book, The Church and the Second Sex, (1968) she argued that the Catholic Church was patriarchal in nature and had systematically opposed women for centuries. In response, the college attempted to dismiss her, but the support she received from students and the public kept her in the classroom.

As a student in the early ’70s at Trinity, an all-women’s college in Washington, DC, I was thrilled about Mary Daly and her books. “Someone speaking for us,” I thought as I picked one up. “Someone speaking the truth about what it’s like to be a woman in the Catholic Church.”

Sr. Joan Chittister reflected on Daly’s impact on history: “I learned how to look newly at things I’d looked at for so long that I was no longer really seeing any of them. Women need to thank Daly for raising two of the most important theological questions of our time: one, whether the question of a male God was consistent with the teaching that God was pure spirit, and two, whether a church that is more patriarchal system than authentic church could possibly survive in its present form. These two questions have yet to be resolved and are yet rankling both thinkers and institutions.”

Coming out and moving beyond

Daly came out as a lesbian in the early 70s – when she was in her 40s. She began to study ancient cultures, and came to regard all major modern religions as oppressive to women, a view expressed in her second book, Beyond God the Father (1973). Her original critique of the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of patriarchy was extended to the entire Christian tradition. She rejected Christianity’s focus on a monotheistic deity and what she attacked as its intrinsic patriarchy. She asserted that Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ was just another dimension of its patriarchy – a Savior in a male body.

As Margaret Elizabeth Kostenberger explains, Daly’s “compete rejection of Scripture” on the basis of its “irremediable patriarchal bias” took her far outside the Christian faith. While other feminists called for the adoption of female or gender-neutral language for God, Daly attacked those efforts as half-measures that fail to take the “phallocentricity” of theism seriously.

Her famous dictum, “If God is male, then the male is God,” stood at the heart of her argument against religion. She accused Christianity of “gynocide” against women and suggested that all monotheistic religion–and Christianity in particular–is “phallocentric.”

“I urge you to sin,” she wrote to women readers. “But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism–or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism–which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!”

A mystery to solve

In 1999 Professor Daly left Boston College after a male student threatened a lawsuit when he was denied a place in her class on feminist ethics. She had long limited enrollment in some advanced women’s studies classes to women only, maintaining that the presence of men there would inhibit frank discussion.

What happened to Mary Daly, that she imposed the same gender barriers in her classrooms as she experienced? Daly went to Europe for advanced degrees because no U.S. Catholic university would accept a woman in a theology program. Years later, Daly bared men from her advanced courses in women’s studies because she felt their presence would have a negative impact on the other students. Men, she said, “have nothing to offer but doodoo.”

It may be retribution, but it doesn’t seem right. How do you rail against a system of discrimination, and then implement it with glee yourself?

So I am left with a mystery to solve: why did Mary Daly, a “post-Christian,” continue to affiliate with Boston College, an unabashedly Catholic institution? Love and hate are bound very closely. Daly was never indifferent.

Perhaps it began with a girlhood hurt. Daly wrote about her intellectual formation in a 1996 article in the New Yorker “Sin Big,” in which she recalled being mocked by a male classmate, and altar boy, at her parochial school because she could never “serve Mass” because she was a girl.

“(T)his repulsive revelation of the sexual caste system that I would later learn to call ‘patriarchy’ burned its way into my brain and kindled an unquenchable Rage,” she wrote.

Daly described herself as a pagan, an eco-feminist and a radical feminist in a 1999 interview with The Guardian newspaper of London. “I hate the Bible,” she told the paper. “I always did. I didn’t study theology out of piety. I studied it because I wanted to know.”

So with all that, how could she in good conscience continue to teach at a Catholic university?

Here’s what I think: at Boston College, Daly could be an outlaw, get a pay check, credibility for book deals, and still have the protective mantle of identity that gave her cachet: a professor at a highly regarded Catholic university.

She lived on the piercing insights she fearlessly raised 40 years ago. But Daly had ceased to be a theologian, and even her philosophical writing declined into self-important gibberish. She should have taken her own advice–a person becomes stagnant if they don’t move on.

If you’re going to call yourself a Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. If you have moved on… move on, and stop clinging to institutions that you say you no longer believe in.

A man wrote the best epitaph for Daly that I have read: “When I was in the seminary, attending class at B.C. during the eighties, Mary Daly was a joke. Imagine my surprise when, years later, as a purely cynical move to impress a feminist scholar, I cited Mary Daly in a paper, but was not able to put her work down. Although her work never persuaded me to abandon my beliefs, or my own thinking, Mary did push me to consider a whole world of concern that years earlier I would have dismissed as nonsense. Now, when I think of her, I do not think of a nut, or a totally whacked out feminist. I think of a pioneer, who, although not worthy of discipleship, is certainly worthy of being taken seriously as a thinker and a human being. I wish I had met her, although I’m not sure of how it would have turned out.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Turning King's Dream Into a Nightmare

By Chris Hedges

Editor’s Note: The following article was first published as Chris Hedges’ January 17 column at

Martin Luther King Day has become a yearly ritual to turn a black radical into a red-white-and-blue icon. It has become a day to celebrate ourselves for “overcoming” racism and “fulfilling” King’s dream. It is a day filled with old sound bites about little black children and little white children that, given the state of America, would enrage King. Most of our great social reformers, once they are dead, are kidnapped by the power elite and turned into harmless props of American glory. King, after all, was not only a socialist but fiercely opposed to American militarism and acutely aware, especially at the end of his life, that racial justice without economic justice was a farce.

“King’s words have been appropriated by the people who rejected him in the 1960s,” said Professor James Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York and who wrote the book “Martin & Malcolm & America.” “So by making his birthday a national holiday, everybody claims him, even though they opposed him while he was alive. They have frozen King in 1963 with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That is the one that can best be manipulated and misinterpreted. King also said, shortly after the Selma march and the riots in Watts, ‘They have turned my dream into a nightmare.’”

“Mainstream culture appeals to King’s accent on love, as if it can be separated from justice,” Cone said. “For King, justice defines love. It can’t be separated. They are intricately locked together. This is why he talked about agape love and not some sentimental love. For King, love was militant. He saw direct action and civil disobedience in the face of injustice as a political expression of love because it was healing the society. It exposed its wounds and its hurt. This accent on justice for the poor is what mainstream society wants to separate from King’s understanding of love. But for King, justice and love belong together.”

Malcolm X, whose refusal to appeal to the white ruling class makes it impossible to turn him into an establishment icon, converged with King in the last months of his life. But it would be wrong to look at this convergence as a domestication of Malcolm X. Malcolm influenced King as deeply as King influenced Malcolm. These men each grasped at the end of their lives that the face of racism comes in many forms and that the issue was not simply sitting at a lunch counter with whites—blacks in the North could in theory do this—but being able to afford the lunch. King and Malcolm were deeply informed by their faith. They adhered to a belief system, one Christian and the other Muslim, which demanded strict moral imperatives and justice. And because neither man sold out or compromised with the power elite, they were killed. Should King and Malcolm have lived, they would have become pariahs.

Above: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left,
with Malcolm X in Washington in March 1964.
(Image: AP/Henry Griffin)

King, when he began his calls for integration, argued that hard work and perseverance could make the American dream available for rich and poor, white and black. King grew up in the black middle class, was well educated and culturally refined. He admitted that until his early 20s, life had been wrapped up for him like “a Christmas present.” He naively thought that integration was the answer. He trusted, ultimately, in the white power structure to recognize the need for justice for all of its citizens. He shared, as most in his college-educated black class did, the same value system and preoccupation with success as the whites with whom he sought to integrate.

But this was not Malcolm’s America. Malcolm grew up in urban poverty, dropped out of school in eighth grade, was shuttled between foster homes, abused, hustled on city streets and ended up in prison. There was no evidence in his hard life of a political order that acknowledged his humanity or dignity. The white people he knew did not exhibit a conscience or compassion. And in the ghetto, where survival was a daily battle, nonviolence was not a credible option.

“No, I’m not an American,” Malcolm said. “I’m one of 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the … victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I! I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!”

King, especially after he confronted the insidious racism in Chicago, came to appreciate Malcolm’s insights. He soon began telling Christians that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.”

“King began to see that Malcolm was right in what he was saying about white people,” Cone told me. “Malcolm saw that white people did not have a conscience that could be appealed to to bring justice for African-Americans. King realized that near the end of his life. He began to call most whites ‘unconscious racists.’”

The crude racist rhetoric of the past is now considered impolite. We pretend there is equality and equal opportunity while ignoring the institutional and economic racism that infects our inner cities and fills our prisons, where a staggering one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated. There are more African-American men behind bars than in college. “The cell block has replaced the auction block,” the poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes.

The fact that prison and urban ghettos are populated primarily with people of color is not an accident. It is a calculated decision by those who wield economic and political control. For the bottom third of African-Americans, many of whom live in these segregated enclaves of misery and deprivation, little has changed over the past few decades; indeed, life has often gotten worse.

In the last months of his life, King began to appropriate Malcolm’s language, reminding listeners that the ghetto was a “system of internal colonialism.” “The purpose of the slum,” King said in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival, “is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness. … The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.” The chief problem is economic, King concluded, and the solution is to restructure the whole society.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were, as King and Malcolm knew, meaningless slogans if there was no possibility of a decent education, a safe neighborhood, a job or a living wage. King and Malcolm were also acutely aware that the permanent war economy was directly linked to the perpetuation of racism and poverty at home and often abroad.

In a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” he gave at Riverside Church a year before his assassination, King called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” a quote that won’t make it into many Martin Luther King Day celebrations. King’s strident denunciation of the Vietnam War and economic injustice at the end of his life saw many white liberals, members of his own staff, as well as allies within the political power structure, turn against him. King and Malcolm, in the final days of their lives, were lonely men.

“There are many ways in which Malcolm’s message is more relevant today,” said Cone, who also wrote “A Black Theology of Liberation.” “King’s message is almost entirely dependent on white people responding to his appeals for nonviolence, love and integration. He depends on a positive response. Malcolm spoke to black people empowering themselves. He said to black people, ‘You may not be responsible for getting yourself into the situation you are in, but if want to get out you will have to get yourself out. The people who put you in there are not going to get you out.’ King was appealing to whites to help get black people out. But King gradually began to realize that African-Americans could not depend on whites as much as he had thought.

“King did not speak to black self-hate and Malcolm did,” Cone said. “King was a political revolutionary. He transformed the social and political life of America. You would not have Barack Obama today if it had not been for King. Malcolm was a cultural revolutionary. He did not change the social or political structures, but he changed how black people thought about themselves. He transformed black thinking. He made blacks love themselves at a time when they hated themselves. The movement from being Negro and colored to being black, that’s Malcolm. Black studies in the universities and black caucuses, that’s Malcolm. King never would have done black studies. He taught a course at Morehouse on social and political philosophers and did not include a black person. He didn’t have W. E. B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass. None of them. He had all the white figures like Plato and Aristotle. Malcolm helped black people to love themselves.”

King and Malcolm would have excoriated a nation that spends $3 trillion waging imperial wars in the Middle East and trillions more to fill the accounts of Wall Street banks while abandoning its poor. They would have denounced the liberals who mouth platitudes about justice for the poor while supporting a party that slavishly serves the interests of the moneyed elite. These American prophets spoke on behalf of people who had nothing left with which to compromise. And for this reason they did not compromise.

“You can’t drive a knife into a man’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches, and call it progress,” Malcolm said.

“I’ve decided what I’m going to do,” King preached at one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church. “I ain’t going to kill nobody in Mississippi … [and] in Vietnam. I ain’t going to study war no more. And you know what? I don’t care who doesn’t like what I say about it. I don’t care who criticizes me in an editorial. I don’t care what white person or Negro criticizes me. I’m going to stick with the best. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand because it is right. Every now and then we sing about it, ‘If you are right, God will fight your battle.’ I’m going to stick by the best during these evil times.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Edward Schillebeeckx: An Appreciation

By William D. Lindsey

Editor’s Note: The following was originally published as Part 2 of of an appreciation of the late theologian Edward Schllebeeckx (pictured at right) by William D. Lindsey. For Part 1, click here. Both installments were originally published at William’s Bilgrimage blogsite, and cross-posted at the recently established Open Tabernacle.


Edward Schillebeeckx was one of the primary theological advisors of the Dutch bishops at Vatican II, and his work in the area of ecclesiology in particular has now become canonical for the entire church, as it were, through the documents of Vatican II.

In key respects, Schillebeeckx belongs to a movement strong in French, Belgian, and Dutch Catholicism of the early 20th century. This movement was known as a ressourcement movement, a movement seeking to return to the sources—specifically, to the biblical and patristic foundations—of Christian theology.

The ressourcement movement was, in significant ways, a reaction to what happened to the Catholic church in its period of reaction, first to the Reformation and then to the rise of modernity. During the period of the Council of Trent, the church’s official response to the Reformation, and at Vatican I, which in many ways charted the church’s strong counter-push to modernity, the Catholic church opted for an ecclesiology that was not so much strongly grounded in either biblical or patristic sources as it was innovative. It was a contextual theology that had everything to do with the church’s reaction to movements it considered threatening, movements demanding a vehement and immediate push-back from the church.

In the Tridentine period, the period of the counter-Reformation, the ecclesiology that prevailed was what is called the “perfect society” model of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. This ecclesiology laid great stress on the need of the church to function as an institution complete in and of itself, parallel (and superior) to the state, whose structures the church mirrors but which does not have the perfection of the church.

This notion of church stressed the need for top-down, hierarchical, monarchical government in the church, akin to (but more perfect than) that of the state. Indeed, the perfect society model made being church synonymous with monarchy, with absolute control (perfect control) of the whole church exercised from the top down through a hierarchical chain of command. The model of church that Trent set into motion placed the church and its structures over against secular models, while at the same time incorporating their key features.

This ecclesiology was then, as I note above, contextual. It was an adaptive ecclesiology, one that reflected the circumstances in which the perfect society ecclesiology was developed. It was a reaction to the Reformation, which seemed to be fragmenting the perfect society of the church, and to the rise of the nation-state, which went hand in hand with the Reformation, and seemed to be competing with the church for power and control.

Bellarmine’s perfect society model prevailed from the Tridentine period of the church through the first Vatican Council and up to Vatican II. Vatican I endorsed the model, adding to it the new twist of papal infallibility. During this period of its history, the Catholic church appeared to be locked into a bitter battle against secular society—against the world. Only in the church, which was a fortress of truth and light in the midst of a surrounding culture of error and darkness, could one find salvation. Only in the Catholic church could one find the perfect society that guarantees salvation.

I’ve labored over this quick theological sketch of the ecclesiological backdrop to Vatican II because it is essential to understand what Vatican II thought it was correcting, when it moved back to the sources, back beyond the 16th-century ecclesiology of Trent and the 19th-century ecclesiology of Vatican I. Many of those who now combat Vatican II argue that this ecumenical council was a radical departure from the tradition, that it rejected the tradition and flung the doors of the church open to a contemporary secularism that represents a wholesale departure from longstanding tradition.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The ecclesiology of Vatican II returns to more ancient, more venerable understandings of the church found in the texts of the New Testament and in patristic theology. It corrects what was in itself an innovation on the tradition—the ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I—by reminding the church that the perfect society model and the fortress church model that developed in the Counter-Reformation and modern periods are themselves innovative ecclesiologies—new developments in the tradition not conspicuously rooted in scripture and patristic theology.

And so enter Schillebeeckx: as the bishops assembled at Vatican II began to recognize the need to re-emphasize images and theologies of the church that would correct the historically conditioned fortress church ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I, they turned to the exhaustive theological work done by theologians of the ressourcement movement like Yves Congar (a mentor of Schillebeeckx’s) and Schillebeeckx, which delved into the biblical and patristic roots of Catholic ecclesiology.

Schillebeeckx was particularly brilliant in his ability to re-focus contemporary Catholic theology on the most fundamental meaning of sacramentality, which runs beneath the sacramental system of the church and provides meaning to that system, and which had been obscured by the theology of Trent-Vatican I. During the period of reaction of these two councils, the sacraments came to be viewed almost as “things,” as holy objects owned and dispensed by the rulers of the perfect society to their loyal subjects, insofar as those subjects were faithful and performed proper obeisance.

What this view of the sacramental life significantly overlooks is the way in which the sacraments are manifestations of the primary sacrament—the sacrament of Christ himself. The sacraments signify and effect grace because Christ himself signifies and effects grace in the world, as the primary, central sign of God’s salvific self-offering to the world. The church is sacramental—it is itself a sign of Christ’s sacramental presence in the world—because it is united with Christ. It mirrors Christ’s salvific presence in the world.

Schillebeeck’s pre-Vatican II work on Christ as the sacrament of the encounter with God (particularly in Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God) and on the church as the sacramental sign of Christ helped those gathered at Vatican II to refocus Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental life on biblical and patristic roots that connect the church’s life, its role as a salvific presence in the world, to the primary sacrament from which the church’s sacramental life and salvific work flow—to Christ. At one level, this ecclesiology reorients the church to something that should never be lost sight of in Christian theology and Christian spirituality: to Jesus as the model, the center, of theological reflection and of the spiritual journey.

This is a strand of the theology of Vatican II that Schillebeeckx would deepen significantly in his two post-Vatican II works Jesus: An Experiment in Christology and Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World. These provide a rich treasure trove of biblical scholarship that sets Catholic theology back on a strong, vibrant biblical foundation—a project that reflects the particular concerns of Catholic theologians in countries like the Netherlands, where Catholics and Protestants coexist and seek to recognize the important theological contributions made by the traditions of each other. Schillebeeckx’s theology is especially strong in the area of biblical scholarship. In contrast to many Catholic theologians of the latter half of the 20th century (including Benedict XVI, whose biblical scholarship has often been criticized by theological colleagues as notably deficient), Schillebeeckx grounds his theology in painstaking, well-researched exegesis.

Note what this return to the sources—above all, to the central, perduring focus of Christian theology and spirituality on Jesus as the primary sacrament, and on the church’s role as a sacramental presence in the world through its fidelity to Jesus—does, as we begin to look at how the church lives in the world and interacts with the world. In the perfect society and fortress church models, the church’s primary obligation vis-a-vis the world is to combat the world, to correct the world. The church has it all. The world is deficient. The church offers to the world what the world lacks—in particular, dogmatic truth, perfect hierarchical rule, and the sacraments. And the world, if it is wise, will respond humbly and receptively to the offer.

The sacramental notion of the church—the idea that the church mirrors Jesus as the sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world—dislodges the certainties of the perfect society and fortress church models. It does so in two ways. First, if the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in the world, it can hardly claim to have exclusive ownership of that salvific presence. To do so would limit God. It would imply that God’s salvific intent and “reach” in the world are limited, that they do not intend and encompass the entire world.

When ecclesiology grants that God wishes and intends the salvation of the entire cosmos through Christ, then the church pursues its sacramental task in the world in part by watching for signs of the Spirit’s presence anywhere those signs are to be found in the world—inside the church, certainly, but also outside its boundaries, since God is there, too, working salvation. The sacramental church of Vatican II (and of scripture and the patristic period) is a more chastened church than that of Trent and Vatican I, which purported to have it all, almost to own God and God’s salvific work in the world, through the sacraments. The church that seeks to be a faithful sign of salvation in the world both offers salvation to the world, and receives that salvation from areas outside the boundaries of the church, as the Spirit moves through the world fanning the flames of divine love everywhere.

The sacramental notion of the church developed so brilliantly by Schillebeeckx also dislodges the certainties of Tridentine and Vatican I ecclesiology in another key way. This notion of the church, focused as it is on Jesus as the initial, the Ur-sacrament, constantly calls the church back to reflection on how, precisely, it signifies the salvific presence of Christ in the world. If the church is a sign, and, specifically, a sign of Christ and of Christ’s salvation, in the world, then everything the church does, how it behaves, how it structures itself, how it regards the rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how its pastors engage in pastoral leadership—all becomes part and parcel of the sacramental sign of salvation of Christ in the world.

Or perhaps the church’s behavior, how its pastors exercise pastoral leadership, how the church deals with the human rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how it treats the least among us, becomes a counter-sign to Christ’s salfivic presence in the world. If the church can reveal Christ’s face to the world, it can also obscure that face. It can fail to be a patent sacramental sign of salvific love in the world.

As a Dominican theologian, a member of a religious community whose charism is all about engaging and dialoguing with those living in urban centers with strong intellectual movements (Dominic began his ministry as cities began to develop in the Middle Ages, many of them with large universities), Schillebeeckx had a strong concern to see the church respond dialogically, creatively, and above all, redemptively, to the cultures in which it found itself. As with Dominicans in general, Schillebeeckx was a preacher, someone concerned to proclaim the good news of Christ in ever-changing cultural contexts.

Schillebeeckx’s vision of Christian faith was inspired by a deep, profound, and broad grasp of who Jesus was in his humanity. In his work, he was able to articulate this vision across the whole spectrum of Catholic theology from Christology and ecclesiology to ecumenism and social justice concerns. Anyone who tries to understand the Catholic tradition following Vatican II cannot do so adequately without paying attention to the monumental contributions of Edward Schillebeeckx to that tradition.

See also the previous Progressive Catholic Voice post:
Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Archbishop Nienstedt on Religious Pluralism and the "Tragic Flaw" in the Separation of Church and State Doctrine

By Paula Ruddy

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt’s column in the December 31 issue of the Catholic Spirit is a welcome call for recognition of the religious pluralism that exists in this country. Along with his recognition of religious pluralism, he delivers a broadside blow to the doctrine of separation of church and state. His argument requires further thought..

The Archbishop takes on Christopher Hitchens (Star Tribune, December 12) who was critical of the Obamas for displaying a Christmas crèche in the public part of the White House. Hitchens, in an uncharacteristically mild manner, says he understands the politics of President Obama’s emphasizing the Christian religion this season, but he still points to the separation of church and state doctrine: government officials may not promote one religion over another. Hitchens says he himself respects Christmas, Ramadan, and Passover equally, but the solution to the sensitive business of people forcing their religious views on others is to have government officials in their public roles steer clear of using the power of office to promote their own religions.

To this the Archbishop says “I sincerely believe that this line of reasoning is tragically flawed.” He begins his argument with a Webster’s definition of religion and the assertion that the Founding Fathers of our constitutional republic “believed in a society wherein religious belief could be freely expressed.” The Archbishop slides over the problem the Founding Fathers were particularly aware of since many colonists had fled religious persecution: what to do about the propensity of religious people to force their religions on others? The solution was indeed to have a society in which there is freedom to express religious beliefs, but religious freedom for all depends on prohibiting the governmental apparatus from promoting any particular religion. Separation of church and state is the solution we have been committed to and developing since the beginning of our nation. The Archbishop would have to do a little more explaining to show how that line of reasoning is tragically flawed. Zeal to enforce it sometimes runs to extremes, and criticizing the Obamas for a crèche maybe an example of that, but isn’t the doctrine itself sound?

The Archbishop refers to secularism as a religion that Hitchens is promoting. That only confuses the issue and fuels the culture wars. Taking Hitchens’ views, expressed in other writings, seriously and answering him reasonably would be a great help to all of us if the Archbishop were to attempt it.

However, in this brief column the Archbishop is dealing only with the public doctrine of separation of church and state. He has an alternate solution to the problem of people’s wanting to force their religious beliefs and practices on others. In applauding President Obama for displaying Christian symbols in the White House, he goes on to say that “the American ideal would be to display an abundance of [religious symbols], reflecting more accurately that this is indeed ‘the home of the free and the land of the brave.’ “ (We can disregard the misquoting of the national anthem. That might happen to anyone.) It is his solution to the problem of religious coercion that raises questions.

In Archbishop Nienstedt’s one-sentence solution to the problem of religious coercion, government offices should commemorate the religious holidays of all citizens. If there is a Christmas crib at the state house entrance, there should be equal time and display for all other religious holidays. If the Ten Commandments are enshrined in the court house, the ethical codes of all other religions should be displayed there too. The problem with this is that the minority religions will never have the resources to make this happen.

Should we count on the good will of the majority religion -- Christians -- to make the equal display of other religious holiday symbols happen? Does Archbishop Nienstedt mean that he would advocate for lifting up the other religious holidays by making sure that they are commemorated in public to the extent that Christmas would be commemorated?

It is amazing to me to hear the Archbishop champion religious pluralism in this column and advocate for the reliance on citizens’ respect for others’ values instead of on the traditional separation of church and state laws. We wouldn’t need laws if we just respect each other’s freedom and equality. Very true, but do we live up to those standards ourselves?

What about the ethics of other citizens? Can the Archbishop’s respect for pluralism, freedom and equality, be extended to the ethics of other citizens as well as to their holiday symbols? The Archbishop has been the champion of exclusive Catholic ethics to the extent of coercion of other citizens by law. He spearheaded the 2004 to 2006 attempt of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to get the state constitution amended to prevent equal protection under the law for gay and lesbian people who want civil marriage rights. He will insist that the Catholic view on abortion restricts federal funding for an indigent woman’s choice of abortion. The ethics of other citizens don’t seem to get as much respect from him as their religious holiday symbols.

Despite my skepticism about his solution to the danger of religious coercion, I thank the Archbishop for raising all these questions that need careful, reasonable, and open discussion among all Catholics in the Archdiocese. And I thank him for at least opening the door to valuing religious pluralism.

Paula Ruddy is co-founder of the Progressive Catholic Voice and co-chair of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR).