Sunday, May 30, 2010

How Church Shopping is Polarizing the Country

By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone

Editor's Note: This article was first published on May 24 on the "Belief Blog" of CNN.

The difference in viewpoints between
traditionalists and modernists
has dramatic effects
on the culture wars, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn say.

A report this month on who gets abortions showed some surprising results: Catholic women are about as likely as any other woman to terminate a pregnancy. Then again, the striking thing about American Catholics is that they look almost exactly like the average American.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, Catholics supported Obama in the 2008 election by 1 percentage point more than the general public. Even when it comes to abortion, which the Catholic Church strongly opposes, American Catholics are only 2 percent more likely than the general public to favor making it illegal.

What explains the divergence between church teaching and political poll responses? A large part of it is the difference between those who check a religious box in a public opinion poll and those who show up at a church on Sunday. If we look at only white Catholics who attend church at least once a week, they favor making abortion illegal by 76 to 27 percent.

The figures underlie a striking change in the characteristics of American churches of all denominations: in the '60s, those showing up in church on Sunday might have represented a cross-section of American viewpoints; today, they are more likely to reflect traditionalist views, further driving modernists away from religion altogether - and intensifying what some have called the “devotional divide” in American politics.

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists is profound - and has dramatic effects on today’s culture wars. David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, explains that traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority that “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are."

Modernists, on the other hand, would redefine historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. They are less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change. Both might prefer that their 17-year-old daughters not sleep with their high school boyfriends. Modernists, however, would have an easier time saying, “But if you do, be sure you use a condom.”

In the era following World War II, both groups attended the same churches. They were likely to subscribe to their parents’ religion, to attend the church down the street, to include their children in community activities the church sponsored. Today, we are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values, and traditionalists - those searching for “an eternal and transcendent authority” - are much more likely to attend church at all.

The result, according to journalist Bill Bishop, is the “collapse of the middle” in American church life. Mainline Protestant churches, which tended to be more moderate and inclusive, have been losing membership for decades. The churches that have shown the greatest growth have been the large-scale megachurches, where eight in 10 are traditionalist.

During the same period, Catholics have become more likely to choose parishes on the basis of something other than geography, and 72 percent said that “the traditional or conservative nature of the church” was an important or very important reason for choosing their parish.

In the meantime, modernists, who are less comfortable with churches dominated by traditionalists, have become less likely to attend church at all. During the '90s, the number of Americans reporting “no religion” doubled, and sociologists believe the shift reflected the desire of many Americans to distance themselves from the increasingly close association between organized religion and conservative politics.

That association is the result of a set of reinforcing factors. Traditionalists are much more likely to attend church. The Republican Party has adopted more traditionalist rhetoric and policies, locking in the political support of those most in search of fixed rules and uncompromising principles. The association between religion and conservative politics and policies alienate the modernists, who distance themselves from religion. This leaves church attendees talking to the converted - those who share both their religious and political beliefs.

Studies of group psychology show that when people with similar views talk to one another, they end up at even more extreme positions. The very ability to choose - neighborhoods, cable TV stations, websites, churches - increases the risk that we will hear only those with whom we already agree.

As a result, the middle may be dropping out of American politics the same way it did from Protestant churches. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that those who attend religious services more than once per week voted Republican more than those who never attend religious services at all.

Notre Dame’s Campbell adds that, in interpreting these results, traditionalism may matter even more than church attendance. In 2004, for example, only 24 percent of the top quartile of modernists voted for Bush, compared to 84 percent of the highest quartile of traditionalists. Campbell concludes that in explaining the devotional divide “it is clearly traditionalism that makes the difference.”

Catholics as a group may accordingly be quite capable of reaching consensus views. The traditionalists who dominate Sunday mass and the modernists who have become less likely to attend church at all, however, are increasingly unlikely to talk to each other.

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn are law professors and authors of the recent book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.

Note: To read comments on the CNN website in response to this article, click here. To read Catholic commentator Colleen Kochivar-Baker's reflections on it, click here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Many Voices, One Church

Note: Continuing with our series that recognizes and celebrates the contribution of lay preachers within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the editorial team of the PCV in honored to share the following Pentecost Sunday homily.

(For an introduction to this series, click here. Also, please note that to avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.)


Pentecost was originally an Old Testament festival celebrating the `first fruits of the spring harvest – the gifts of the Earth. By the early New Testament it had gradually lost its association with the gifts of the Earth and became a celebration of God's creation of the Jews and their religious history. By the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE it focused exclusively on God's gift of Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Today, in our readings, the emphasis is on an empowerment through the Holy Spirit that enabled the early disciples, and now enables us, to live out the message of Jesus. The Hebrew word for Spirit also means breath and wind. I can imagine the men and women huddled in fear in the upper room on the evening of that first day of the week. What was going to happen to them? What were they going to do now? Perhaps as the Spirit was breathed on them they began to sense the gifts of the Spirit: strength, wisdom and comfort. Maybe one of them said something realistically hopeful. Hope that sprang from a strong belief in the message that Jesus, the Prophet, had preached: love, forgiveness, and taking care of others for the common good. Maybe the Spirit inspired the group of followers to say "Yes, we can!".

Yes! We can live in faith and not fear. Yes! We can reach out to others with love and non-violence. Yes We can pray together. Individuals may have found new awareness of their gifts for the common good. Maybe someone tentatively said we can meet and pray at my house. Someone else may have said I can make the bread. Others might have said: "I can bring the wine." "I can make music." "I can teach the children." "I can spread the word among those who haven't heard about us."

If any of this sounds familiar it is! We too are called to recognize our gifts and use them in community. As a member of the council [of this Catholic faith community] I've had the privilege of being keenly aware of the gifts of this community. The involvement of all in the broader community is remarkable. I counted 94 different organizations listed by individuals on their registration forms. From school rooms to board rooms; from local to national government, from the streets of the city to the open space of the country we are living out the Gospel of Jesus in the service and justice work we are doing. I can only believe that the Spirit of God inspires us in mysterious and ordinary ways.

In this immediate community there are innumerable tasks that need to be done, thoughts that need to be thought, emotions that need to be supported, money that needs to be contributed, and prayers that need to be prayed for us to thrive. And we are doing it! We are one body with many parts! We come together in prayer that fortifies us for the following week: A week that requires us to try to live out the message of Jesus to love one another, to care for the vulnerable and to work for justice. A week during which the Holy Spirit loves us and will never let us go.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Austrian Cardinal Roils the Vatican

By David Gibson

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published on May 18, 2010 at

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is a former student of the current pope whose efforts in the 2005 conclave were key to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI. But these days Schönborn has the Vatican and conservative Catholics wondering whether he's helping his friend, given the independent-minded streak Schönborn has shown amid the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis.

In March, Schönborn set off alarm bells in Rome when he said that mandatory celibacy -- the longstanding rule that priests must not marry -- should be included in an "unflinching examination" of the scandal's causes.

Schönborn's spokesman later claimed that the cardinal was not "in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church's celibacy rule" -- though church sources said the backtrack was issued under pressure from the Vatican.

Now Schönborn has repeated his support for optional celibacy in a statement that will likely confound the Vatican and be hard to clarify.

Last week, Austrian Bishop Paul Iby of Eisenstadt, who is retiring, said the church should re-think the celibacy requirement as well as the all-male priesthood. "It should be at the discretion of every priest whether to live in voluntary celibacy or in a family," Iby told Die Presse. On Monday, Schönborn said he shares Iby's desire for an open debate on the issue.

"The concern that Bishop Iby expressed is shared by all of us [Austrian bishops]," Schönborn told the Austrian Independent newspaper. And in a possible tweak to Rome, he added that "I am happy to be in a church in which there is freedom of speech and opinion."

Schönborn is seen as an orthodox churchman who was the main editor of the latest edition of the church's catechism, the main guidebook for Catholics throughout the world. But he been increasingly outspoken as the sex abuse scandal has continued to rock the church.

Last month, in an unusual blast at a fellow cardinal, Schönborn said that the dismissal of sex abuse reports as "petty gossip" by Cardinal Angelo Sodano at Easter Mass in the Vatican had "deeply wronged" the victims of clergy abuse. Sodano's remarks were part of a defense of Pope Benedict XVI, and Sodano, a former Vatican secretary of state who is still very influential in Rome, was embraced by the pontiff after his brief talk.

But Schönborn was having none of it.

Speaking to editors of Austrian daily newspapers, Schönborn said that it was Sodano who had thwarted Vatican investigations of high-level child abusers, such as Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, the previous archbishop of Vienna, and Father Marcel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, a cult-like Catholic order now under Vatican censure. "The days of cover up are over," he said, according to an account in The Tablet of London, a leading Catholic weekly.

Schönborn, who was once a theology student of Ratzinger's, also went well beyond a mano-a-mano with Sodano. He said the Roman Curia was "urgently in need of reform." But he noted that Pope Benedict was working "gently" on that process and that the pope's style -- Ratzinger is a theologian and academic who likes to deliberate and prefers not to delegate tasks -- made it difficult for advice from the outside to reach him.

Even more sensational were Schönborn's comments in the interview that lasting gay relationships deserve respect and that the church needs to reconsider its position on remarried divorcees who currently are barred from receiving Communion.

"We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships," he said, adding: "A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous."

No wonder some people are touting the 65-year-old Schönborn himself as papabile -- literally, "pope-able" -- in a future conclave.

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author, filmmaker, and a convert to Catholicism. For more information on him, click here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Are Not My Father, You Are My Brother

By Sheila Fabricant Linn, M.Div.

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published in the April 30, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

As the current crisis regarding the sexual abuse of children by priests unfolds, I have been reading articles by representatives of the [Roman] Catholic Church attempting to explain the causes of this behavior. I’ve read that it is because candidates were not screened carefully years ago, sexual abuse was not adequately understood, canon law made it difficult to remove priests from ministry, and so forth. To the authors’ credit, I have also read admissions that bishops have often been more concerned about protecting priests and the institution of the Church than about the victims.

I work as part of a ministry team with my husband, a former Jesuit, and my brother-in-law, a current Jesuit priest. We give retreats and conferences, largely in Catholic settings, and we write books on healing and spiritual growth. Many of our readers and retreatants have experienced sexual abuse. So, I am familiar with this issue and I am also familiar with clerical culture. The explanations by Catholic clergy of sexual abuse that I have seen overlook fundamental institutional weaknesses that have contributed to this tragic situation.

I want to begin with what is closest to my heart: I am the mother of a twelve-year-old boy. I would do anything to protect my son. (So would my husband.) Since I became a mother, I am far more attuned to the needs of all children and more likely to protest their mistreatment. I observe the same thing in the thousands of other parents who attend our programs. Their first and deepest concern is the welfare of their children and, by extension, the welfare of all children. Yet, the people responsible for the current sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church are men who (presumably) have no children.

It is certainly true that parents, usually fathers, sometimes sexually abuse their offspring, and that their spouses may be psychologically disordered and/or co-dependent enough to tolerate it. Significantly, step-fathers are more likely to sexually abuse children than are fathers. This may be in part because the experience of watching one’s child be born, of holding and caring for a baby and then a young child (experiences often missed by step-fathers), activate hormonal changes in men. For example, testosterone levels diminish when a man becomes a father, and his level of prolactin (the hormone associated with lactation) rises.* Such hormonal changes in a father are the biochemical basis of bonding and they translate into the psychological predisposition to nurture and care for his child. In other words, although some fathers do abuse their children, it appears that the closer one is to the actual experience of parenthood and the more involved in the day-to-day care of one’s child, the more likely that one’s first instinct will be to protect children.

People who are not parents themselves can and often do form strong bonds of devotion with children (nieces and nephews, god-children, students, etc.) and may become committed advocates for the welfare of children. However, for reasons ranging from the biochemistry of parenthood to all the everyday ways in which children evoke love and care, it seems that parents of healthy, functional families are more likely to develop an acute sensitivity to the needs of children – a sensitivity usually powerful enough to over-ride inappropriate sexual urges. In my opinion, the current crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy would never have reached such epic proportions nor gone on so long if mothers (and securely attached fathers) participated in all forms of ministry and shared equal decision-making power at the highest levels of the Church.

Related to this, perhaps the most telling word in the efforts of Catholic clergy to explain the current crisis is not in their explanations at all. Rather, it is in the way they introduce themselves: as “Father.”

Sexual abuse is a misuse of power and takes place in a context of unequal power relations. The title “Father” connotes power and authority and, especially in a religious context, it connotes spiritual power and authority. “Father” is a relational term, implying that others are in the role of children. Fathers are regarded as knowing more than the children, knowing what is best for the children, and (in a religious context) knowing what the mystery we call God wants from and for the children.

Incest in families happens in part because children instinctively trust their fathers (and by extension other father figures) and because they are in awe of or intimidated by the authority of the father. The priest who presents himself as “Father” evokes this same mixture of trust, awe and intimidation. He is asking for the deference accorded a father without paying the dues of getting up in the middle of the night with a crying baby and without the concomitant release of the hormones that might predispose him to restrain inappropriate impulses and instead care for and protect that baby at all costs. Moreover, this deference is amplified by the belief that this father is a stand-in for Jesus and/or God. I believe the title “Father” as used for priests replicates the dynamics of incest and is a set-up for sexual abuse.

When a priest presents himself as “Father.” he encourages everyone else to take the role of a child, including parents and other adults. If there is anything that will at least temporarily dull, diminish and even paralyze the protective instincts of parents for their children, it is blind faith in the authority of “Father,” who supposedly knows the will of God better than they do. It is difficult enough for parents to face the possibility that their child may have been sexually abused by a stranger and take action on the child’s behalf. How much more difficult and even unthinkable this is if the perpetrator claims to be a spiritual “Father.”

A priest is not my father, nor (I presume) anyone else’s. He is my brother. I want to suggest a simple step that priests might take in the direction of healing the root causes of sexual abuse by clergy. I suggest they stop claiming the spiritual authority of Father by dropping that title and instead introduce themselves simply by their first names . . . just like the rest of us. This would say to me that they are serious about doing their part to atone for the abuse of children by priests and to change the fundamental dynamics of clerical culture that have allowed it to happen.

But it’s not all up to them. In any adult relationship of unequal power that causes harm, both sides share the responsibility for change. If we who are not officially priests continue to relinquish our own power and authority by elevating those who claim that role, symbolized by using the title “Father,” we are complicit in perpetuating those aspects of clerical culture that can lead to the abuse of children. I suggest we all do our part by treating ourselves as equals, as brothers and sisters, and by addressing priests in terms that reflect that equality.

* See Jeremy Adam Smith, The Daddy Shift (Beacon Press, 2009), for research on the effects of fatherhood on men.

Sheila Fabricant Linn, M.Div. is the co-author (with Dennis Linn and Matt Linn, S.J.) of sixteen books on the integration of spirituality with psychology, medicine and science. These books have been translated into more than twenty foreign languages. She is an international speaker and retreat leader. Sheila can be reached at

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Save the Date!

Dignity Twin Cities
and the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities
invite you to . . .

A Catholic Mass in Celebration

of Our LGBT Brothers & Sisters

Thursday, June 24, 2010
7:00 p.m.
(social hour with dessert and coffee to follow)

The House of the Beloved Disciple
4001 38th Ave. S., Minneapolis
(Minnehaha/Spirit of the Lakes UCC)

Yahweh called me when I was in the womb,
Before my birth he had pronounced my name.
. . . I shall be honored in Yahweh’s eyes,
and my God has been my strength

– Isaiah 49: 1, 6.


At 8:30 p.m., Northfield writer R.W. “Obie” Holmen will discuss and read from A Wretched Man: A Novel of the Apostle Paul, his compelling and controversial book that offers a gay perspective on Paul.

A Wretched Man is a stunning fictional account of the early church that reads like real-life. While a work of fiction, this just may be the most authentically historical novel ever written about the lives of the apostles.

– Rev. Jeffrey Bütz
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy
Pennsylvania State University

Saturday, May 8, 2010

If I Could Have a Conversation with the Archbishop

By Paula Ruddy

Note: The image of Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that accompanied this article has been removed at the Archbishop's request through Dennis McGrath, Communications Director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Mr. McGrath did not pass on any comments of the Archbishop on the content of the article.

It would be about the meaning of good citizenship and the Gospel. After all, John C. Nienstedt is our appointed teacher, the person we are to look to for leadership in thinking about the Church’s mission in the world. He is promoting “faithful citizenship.” Shouldn’t he tell us what he means by that?

As I see it, the Archbishop has an agenda. He is concerned about the “culture of marriage” in the U.S. and his strategy is to change the culture through force of law. If the law does not enforce what he believes to be Christian/Catholic ethics, he threatens to disobey it. He urges Christian/Catholic citizens to do an end run around constitutional principles for his campaign. This is so alarming that questions must be asked.

The Questionable Campaign

It started in Manhattan. On November 20, 2009, John Nienstedt signed the Manhattan Declaration. Created by Charles Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George for Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, it is a seven page document defining some policies on which U.S. law should be based. In its last paragraph, the declaration states the signers’ intent to refuse to obey any law that

purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act, nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

The Archbishop brought the Manhattan campaign home to Minnesota. From December 2009 to April 17, 2010, he sponsored a program through the Archdiocesan Office for Marriage, Family and Life entitled “Reclaiming the Culture of Marriage and Life.” I attended the session held at the Cathedral in St Paul in February. Peter Laird, the Archdiocesan Vicar General, talked about a theology of marriage and Teresa Collett, professor of law at St Thomas, talked about the disorders in the culture caused by contraception, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, abortion, and the likely harm that would be caused by the legalization of same-sex civil marriage. Written questions were selectively answered. There was no opportunity for dialogue.

The program was available in several sessions in parishes throughout the archdiocese. Attendees were urged to sign the Manhattan Declaration. People who signed up to get email alerts are urged to sign it also. The Manhattan Declaration is linked on the Archdiocesan website under the “departments” category, “marriage” section.

On April 17, the Archbishop convened a culminating conference also entitled “Reclaiming the Culture of Marriage” for which he invited the Roman Catholic bishop of Oakland, California, Salvatore Cordileone, as the keynote speaker. Cordileone was the “co-creator of California Proposition 8,” the referendum making same-sex marriage illegal in California. The conference took place at the Brady Center at St Thomas. A follow-up report claims that 300 people attended. The follow up also urges attendees who signed up for “faithful citizenship” to get active by calling legislators regarding the defense of marriage.

In an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on April 27, the Archbishop urged the people of Minnesota to force an amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution banning same-sex civil marriage or any legal equivalents. In this piece he says that amending the constitution is the best way to circumvent the court system with its constitutional protections for minorities. He says the courts are a “threat”; he refers to them as “a few narrow elites.” They are “activist,” a pejorative term for judges who take the 14th Amendment equal protection clause seriously as they did in the states allowing gay marriage.

The Questions

In a nutshell, in our constitutional democracy we, the people, have the authority to govern ourselves, we make our own laws. We elect legislators to represent us in making them, we elect the president to run the executive branch in enforcing them, and we have a court system to make sure the enforcement is as correct as human limitations allow. Legislators, executive, and judges all take an oath to uphold the Constitution, one of its most important principles being that a majority of citizens should not be able to deprive a minority of rights. Rights the law affords to some citizens belong to all citizens. First question: Does the Archbishop buy into this system?

In a multicultural state and nation such as ours, there are many codes of ethics. People are free to choose values to live by and there are various ways to conceive of the good life. In such a situation of plural value systems, what is the ethical duty of citizenship in making laws that apply to all? Since law has coercive force, we restrict people’s freedom only when there are good reasons to do so. The laws we make have legitimacy only when people can assent to their reasonableness. We, as law-makers for a diverse group of fellow citizens, should be reluctant to force people to act by one ethical code unless it has almost universal acceptance by its reasonableness. Second question: Does the Archbishop agree with this ethic of moderation in restricting freedom?

The Archbishop in signing the Manhattan Declaration threatens civil disobedience. Since we are our own law-makers, the ethics of citizenship oblige us to support our fellow citizens in obeying the laws we make. It is possible that a law may force a person to act against his or her personal or cultural ethical code or against some universal norm of justice, and then civil disobedience is certainly an option. Third question: Is there a law forcing the Archbishop or his fellow Catholics to do something he finds morally offensive? Is it in the common good to threaten civil disobedience on the off chance that there might be such a law?

Considering the ethical obligation to support our fellow citizens in the laws we make, is it ethical to use civil disobedience as a strategy, not to change the law being broken, but to protest other government action or others’ sinful ways?. The Manhattan Declaration cites the example of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and his use of civil disobedience. But Dr. King broke dehumanizing segregation laws because the laws themselves were unjust. He did not reduce the solemn duty of obedience to law to a strategy to get media attention for some other protest. If, for example, the Minnesota legislature passes a marriage equality bill, what kind of civil disobedience does the Archbishop envision? Fourth question: Will Archbishop Nienstedt please lead the whole Catholic community in a reasoned discussion of the use of civil disobedience?

Last question: If our culture in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is in decline, as the Archbishop suggests, why not look to the Gospel instead of to civil law to solve the problem? Because of our constitutional democracy, Catholics are free to live our cultural values with the support of our own community. We need intellectual, moral and spiritual leadership to do so. Because the law allows freedom to be irresponsible does not mean we can’t live up to our own standards.

The Archbishop could focus his campaign on communicating with Catholics, for starters, to create the kind of community that manifests the love of humanity that Jesus taught us. Wasn’t the Gospel idea that a community radiating love, joy, and mutual cooperation would be the mustard seed, the leaven, the lamp in the darkness?

The Gospel ethic of love as well as the civic ethic of respect require us to enter into good faith political discourse with other citizens to learn what is in the common good, what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. We can be both faithful Catholic Christians as well as good citizens of our state and nation.

What would YOU converse with Archbishop Nienstedt about if you had the chance? We'd like to hear from as many of our readers as possible. Please send us your ideas, thoughts, and hopes about your "conversation with the Archbishop" to

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Many Voices, One Church

Note: Continuing with our series that recognizes and celebrates the contribution of lay preachers within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the editorial team of the PCV in honored to share the following Good Shepherd Sunday homily.

(For an introduction to this series, click here. Also, please note that to avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.)


When we hear this gospel reading [John 10:27-30] we wonder if we, as humans, are really like sheep – and if so – what are sheep like? What does it mean to be loved by a shepherd? I grew up on a farm where we raised cattle, pigs, horses and sheep. The rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, between Waukon and Decorah were perfectly suited for grazing animals. I think my Irish ancestors choose the place because it reminded them of the lush green hills of their homeland. I have heard and read pastors or priests discuss sheep as helpless, hapless, difficult or even stupid animals. Those of us who know sheep would disagree. Sheep CAN be stubborn and seem to believe the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” – so they frequently get out of fenced- in places. They are hard to herd without a border collie or sheep dog, as they play follow the leader with other sheep who don’t know where they are going. I could also tell you stories about winning grand champion lamb at the county fair and shampooing my lamb with baby shampoo to make its fleece as “white as snow” before the competition. Or stories about my big sister, Mary’s pet lamb – everywhere that Mary went . . . well, you know the rest.

The experience of watching my dad raise sheep helped me understand what is meant by the “good shepherd.” One difficulty for a sheep farmer is that sometimes a mother sheep will reject her newborn lamb. I remember when my dad would bring a newborn lamb inside and we would try to feed it with a pop bottle fitted with a special nipple. When I asked, “What happened to its mom?” Dad would answer, “Its mom doesn’t want it. She won’t let it eat.” WHAT? I was shocked that a mom wouldn’t want the cute little baby lamb. “She was just too tired from having it,” my dad sighed and shook his head.

Sometimes when it’s cold, rainy, crowded, or just because of a difficult, exhausting delivery, the mother sheep is too tired to take the lengthy time needed to lick and clean and bond with her newborn lamb. Without this special bonding, the mother does not allow the lamb to nurse and it is at risk of starvation. Sometimes the farmer or shepherd can adopt the lamb out to another sheep, and sometimes he or she can keep it alive with a bottle, (that was how my sister got her pet) but this bottle-feeding often is not easy or enough and often the lamb will die.

To reduce this possibility of lamb rejection, my dad would try to get pregnant sheep inside to a warm quiet place when they were close to their delivery time. That way he could check on them on an hourly basis and help ease a delivery. He could help move the extremely exhausted mother near to her newborn and encourage the bonding process. Thus a VERY important role of a good shepherd is that of a good midwife.

“Jesus as midwife,” what does that image mean to us? It means we have someone with us to help us through difficult and scary times. Just as Jesus was with Paul and Barnabas during their travels, teachings and arguments, we have someone with us to help us believe that we can make it through our struggles and that there will be a better future. This has been true in my life as our family struggled with life-threatening depression, chemical dependency, severe marital stress, extended unemployment and financial problems. Thomas Merton said that, “Pure love and prayer are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.”

Jesus helped me see that I need not fear pain, because he is there with me. I also believe Jesus is with us throughout history, as we have struggled for civil rights or women's rights, gay rights or workers’ rights, and equality for immigrants. Jesus the midwife is giving us words of encouragement to help us give birth to a more peaceful, more just and more ecologically sound society. The gospel says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, No one shall snatch them out of my hand.” The Good Shepherd midwife is holding our hands through these struggles and encourages us to work for a greater future. Jesus, as midwife, helps us bring this future into the present.

In Jesus’ time, the shepherds spent their life with their sheep and the sheep bonded emotionally with the shepherd. Like the nursery rhyme, “everywhere the ‘shepherd’ went, the lamb was sure to go.” The shepherds did not have to herd the sheep, instead the sheep would follow them. The shepherds developed their own unique calls and two flocks of sheep that were both grazing on the same hill could be separated out by two different calls from the two shepherds.

“My sheep know my voice, I know them and they follow me,” says Jesus. What is Jesus’ voice calling us to? What dreams do we have that Jesus the midwife can help us bring to life? These inspirations may be a very quiet, small seed – like a dream or embryo within us at first. I had a dream of quilting for nearly 10 years before I finally took my first quilting class and began on a journey of creativity that brought me deep joy. This quilting passion helped me make it through the difficult times and helped me experience God in a different way. I feel one with my Higher Power when I am quilting. As I am creating, I am one with my creator.

Jesus is calling us to experience God within us. Jesus says in the Gospel, “God and I are one.” What experiences are we called to where we can know this deep closeness to God? We may be called to meditation, journaling, taking walks in the woods, gardening or some other God experience. What are we called to that will enable us to know we are “one with God?” What experiences help us know that God is, indeed, holding us in her hand? If we listen closely, Jesus will lead us to these experiences. Because I have a helper personality, I often resist these self-renewal experiences. But I know that I get very irritated, anxious and burned-out without them. Jesus, the midwife, is concerned about my welfare and wants me to have these healing activities. We are all called to be both Marthas and Marys, both givers of love and receivers of love. We need to allow God to hold us in her hand and really feel the embrace.

Hearing and following the midwife shepherd’s call is not always easy. I have had some difficulty, as the disciples did, in following Jesus. I became a staff member at a Catholic worker house in my 20s and two of my 4 sons were born there. I returned to teaching in my 30s and began a 12-step program in my 40s. All were decisions that I made with difficulty. Those experiences brought me great joy, but also great challenges. I grew from the challenges and I believe the decisions were the right ones for me. However, many times I am not sure that I am truly discerning Jesus’ call and sometimes I still have fear or resistance. I remember one prayer that I prayed before I fell in love with my husband, “God, if you want me to fall in love with Brent, please help me to at least be open to it.” I needed my Higher Power to remove the resistance. The midwife’s call can help us know what to do next, what steps to take and when to take them. This shepherd is the same one who tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the persecuted.” What does it mean to listen to his call?

Just as the apostles went from city to city, taking life one city at a time, one day at a time, one discussion at a time, and not always knowing the future – our calls from Jesus the Shepherd midwife can help give us courage during times of difficulty or confusion. Some of the calls from our higher power midwife might be just a “check up, “How are you doing? Relax. Be not afraid. I am with you. I love you. I am holding you always. You shall never perish. No one shall snatch you out of my hand.” Or our calls from Jesus the midwife may be more persistent. “The time is now. You can do it. Take the job, make the move, fall in love, it’s the right college for you. It’s my will for you. Work for social change.” Or we may find we are called to change our mind, to leave a job or city or a church or a relationship. We might be called to “shake the dust from our sandals and move on.”

Lastly, just as a shepherd midwife helps ease the relationship between newborn and mother, Jesus the midwife can help us build new relationships or rebuild and heal older ones. “God and I are one,” says Jesus. “You are in my hands.” We can put our relationships in God’s hands and let the healer do his thing.