Monday, November 30, 2009

High Praise for Theologian Paul Lakeland's Latest Book

As many readers of The Progressive Catholic Voice would know, theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s September 18, 2010 Synod of the Baptized, “Claiming Our Place at the Table.”

Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. He is active in the American Academy of Religion, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the Workgroup for Constructive Theology. His previous two books, both winners of Catholic Press Association awards, are The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church and Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church.

In his recently released book Church: Living Communion, Lakeland pays close attention to the classical “marks of the Church” while at the same time focusing on what we can learn about the nature of the Church as living communion. He does this by examining the values and practices of ordinary believers. He also explores ten questions that the Church must address. These questions affect both the internal workings of the Church and its relationships to other groups, religious and secular. He also offers a constructive proposal for a contextual ecclesiology of the U.S. Catholic Church that utilizes the images of hospice, pilgrim, immigrant, and pioneer.

Following is a sampling of what’s being said by Catholic theologians about Church: Living Communion.

“Paul Lakeland’s brilliant account of ecclesiology may well come to be recognized as the first truly twenty-first-century analysis of the Church. His study addresses the events and insights of the last decade and then transposes into a new key historical-critical readings of the New Testament, themes from Vatican II, ecumenical consensus statements, Lonergan’s methodology, and postmodern concerns. In an engaging, refreshing style, he also faces up to the Church’s failings in hard-hitting language, marked by stark realism. Finally, he gently poses ten challenges to the Church, which he deems eternal.”

– Michael A. Fahey, SJ,
Professor, Boston College

“This is a teaching moment in the Church and this is a teachable book on the Church. In this eminently readable book, Paul Lakeland offers his readers only what they need to know to think and talk intelligently about the identity and mission of the Church. With honesty, he describes the challenges facing the Church that perplex and polarize in a way suitable for debate in the classroom and in reading groups. He invites his readers to develop an inductive approach to ecclesiology, and in the process he promotes the cultivation of practical wisdom that can help communities respond to these challenges with genuine hope.”

– Bradford Hinze, Professor of Theology,
Fordham University

“Paul Lakeland’s Church: Living Communion seizes the moment of a church on the brink of change and points the direction forward. He defines the church realistically through its marks, and leads us through the serious internal and external challenges to its authentic witness. Attentive to the laity, he then builds a practical strategy for moving beyond survival to revival. All this in limpid accessible prose: brilliance in simplicity. This authoritative book will appeal to everyone who has a stake in the Catholic Church in North America today.”

– Roger Haight, SJ, Scholar in Residence,
Union Theological Seminary

Friday, November 27, 2009

Whom Does Christ Exclude?

By John Dominic Crossan

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from a July 2008 Washington Post article by John Dominic Crossan, author and professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University.

The Christian Eucharist has two intertwined layers. First, it is bread and wine, the standard summary of a Mediterranean meal, the normal synthesis of Mediterranean eating. It is, in other words, about food. Throughout his life, Jesus insisted that food, as the material basis of life, was to be fairly and equitably distributed to all God’s children around God’s table. He imagined God-as-Householder (he said “Father” but that was patriarchal normalcy) of the House-World or Homemaker of the Home-earth. And his question was - as in any well-run family - whether everyone had enough or some members had far too much while others had far too little.

Second, none of that was about compassionate charity but about distributive justice. (The Roman Empire did not crucify you for insisting on the former but for insisting too much on that latter.) So Jesus, having lived for non-violent justice died from violent injustice. When one dies an ordinary death, we speak of the separation of body and soul. But a violent death - like crucifixion - involves a separation of body and blood.

In forging the magnificent eucharistic ritual, those twin layers were inextricably linked together to proclaim this: if you live for justice very strongly you could die from injustice very swiftly. When those earliest Christians participated in that ritual, they understood all too well what it meant and to what they were committing themselves. They were pledging themselves to a way of life by participating in the life (definitely) and death (possibly) of Jesus.

They did not have time to debate about the exact mechanics of the “transubstantiation” of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (watch for red herrings, always watch for red herrings) because they were too acutely aware of their own “transubstantiation” from Roman citizens to Christian traitors.

Finally, then, we can face our question. In general: who should accept the eucharistic ritual? Those and only those who are intentionally, self-consciously, and publicly committing themselves to live like Jesus and, if unfortunately ever necessary, to die like Jesus. That is, of course, an on-going lifelong process and it is precisely such eucharistic participation that initiates, continues, and consummates it. The eucharist both proclaims and empowers a life, as Paul would say, “in Christ” or, better “in the body of Christ.”

John Dominic Crossan is a professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University. He was an ordained priest from 1957 to 1969 and is the author of 23 books.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Clerical Abuse: The Dublin Cover-Up

By Terence Weldon

Editor’s Note: This commentary was first published November 23 at Terence’s blogsite, Queering the Church.

From Ireland we now have the long-awaited report of the commission investigating the response of the bishops of Dublin to the problem of abuse of the children in their care. (This is not a report into the problem itself. That was splendidly done by the Ryan Report earlier this year, which not only covered clerical sexual abuse of minors, but also clerical abuse by physical violence and by neglect in church institutions for child “care.” This latest commission investigated the response of the bishops to specific complaints of sexual abuse in just the Archdiocese of Dublin.)

The core finding?

The four Catholic archbishops of Dublin who preceded Dr Diarmuid Martin, were aware of complaints against priests for sexually abusing children — a practice that went on for over 35 years.

But the most senior figures in the Irish hierarchy did not report these crimes to the gardai because of an obsessive culture of secrecy and a desire to preserve the power and aura of the Church and to avoid giving scandal to their congregations.

So, the response was determined by an obsession with secrecy, and the preservation of church power. Note here that the consensus view of those who have investigated the problem from outside the ranks of the church establishment is that one of the key factors is the excessive concentration and abuse of power within church structures. A driving force in the response was a determination to preserve one of the key factors that caused the problem in the first place.

This evidence of concern for the power and prestige of the church was not matched by concern for the welfare of the victims:

The report of the Commission set up to investigate how the Dublin Archdiocese dealt with sex abuse scandals from 1975 to 2004 will find that there was little or no concern for the welfare of the abused children or other children who might come into contact with deviant and even paedophile priests.

Far from offering sympathetic support in their search for justice, they often responded with lack of co-operation, suspicion or even hostility.

Some of those who complained were met with denial, arrogance and even cover-up, the shocking report will reveal.

Let me try to illustrate the scale of this with some figures. First, a reminder of the time scale – 35 years- under the supervision of 4 separate Archbishops: Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Cardinal Connell. For the first 20 years, there was no action at all, until finally, in 1995, Cardinal Connell ordered a trawl through the archives:

It was not until 1995 that he ordered a trawl through the diocesan secret archives to determine how many clerics had ever been accused of child abuse, and he gave gardai only 17 names.

One key reason for his inadequate response was that he just didn’t understand the severity of the problem. . . . He was slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation, took bad counsel from legal and medical advisers and failed to realise that clerical sex abusers could not be dealt with in secret.

The report also says that while Connell was kind and sympathetic to some of those who complained to him, he appeared not to comprehend the suffering of victims.

This week’s verdict in newspaper headlines is that Cardinal Connell’s actions were just ‘too little, too late’. The cardinal claims that he was given “bad advice,” and defended his record on the basis that there was a limit to how much he could do. This didn’t prevent him making a further intervention later, however – in an attempt to prevent his successor doing what he himself had failed to do.

His one intervention came last year when he sought a High Court application to prevent the examination by the commission of more than 5,000 documents which had been handed over by Archbishop Martin on the grounds that these files were confidential to him. But in the ensuing public clamour against his perceived cover-up, he withdrew the application.

In fairness to Connell, though, consider that he at least made some attempt, no matter how inadequate – his three immediate predecessors, John Charles McQuaid, Dermot Ryan and Kevin McNamara did nothing. (No, wait, there was something that one did – he took out insurance to protect against financial losses).

When, finally, his successor had completed a second investigation of Connell’s own records, he found rather more than 17 names.

This compares starkly with how his successor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin later found that since 1940 more than 400 children had claimed to have been abused by at least 152 priests in the Dublin area.

Think on that: Dublin is a particularly large city – yet Dr Martin came up with 400 children abused by 152 priests. 400 cases found by Dr Martin, 17 by Connell. What happened to the other 383? (Or, if Connell’s names refer to priests, not children – it’s not clear which- the other 138 priests?)

This commission investigated a cover-up, not the cause or extent of the original findings. Nevertheless, reading through just these leaked newspaper reports, it does seem that they corroborate the standard findings of the most reliable observers on the nature of the causes of clerical abuse around the world.

One, this is a question of lust gone mad. St Paul is well known to have argued that celibacy is an ideal for those who can manage to control their carnal impulses, but for the greater number who cannot, marriage is recommended, so that their lust can be channeled without doing harm.

Two, it’s about power. An obsession with power and control is widely believed to be a systemic, institutional factor within the church contributing to the problem – but for decades, the bishops of Dublin (like those elsewhere) responded simply with trying to exert yet more control.

Three, it’s about a complete lack of understanding of human sexuality. It is astonishing that Cardinal Connell, a highly intelligent well-educated man at the very end of the twentieth century still could not understand that this was a serious problem which could not be just dealt with by a quiet chat with offenders. He of course was not alone – one of the priests claims it was just a little bit of “innocent pleasure.” (In contrast, presumably with the scandalous sin of adult men who engage in consensual, mutual expression of a loving relationship.) It is clear that a fundamental element in the toxic mix is totally inadequate preparation of our clergy for proper understanding of sex and its role in human relationships.

Other than the fact that it is finally being made public, one of the few good things about this report is that some names and details of individual offenders are being withheld, or are being masked to avoid identification. This is not to continue the cover-up, but to avoid prejudicing the continuing criminal investigations and possible prosecutions.

Finally decades after the scale of the problem first became known, we are seeing an appropriate response to individual offenders (at least in Dublin).

How much longer must we wait to see a comparable, appropriate response to the institutional culpability embedded in church structures – an obsession with power and control, compulsory celibacy, and totally inappropriate methods of selection and training of candidates?

Recommended Off-site Links:
Commission Finds Church Covered Up Child Sex Abuse - Patsy McGarry (Irish Times, November 26, 2009).
In Dublin, a “Perversion of Power” - Rocco Palmo (
Whispers in the Loggia, November 26, 2009).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SNAP Leaders Respond to Latest Findings of the John Jay Study on Predator Priests


Statement by Barbara Dorris, SNAP outreach director:

Now that the obvious has been re-affirmed (that pedophile priests molest girls and boys), let’s hope researchers start to focus on the real question: why do thousands of current and former church employees stay silent about clergy sex crimes and cover ups? That’s what really needs to be addressed.

We have serious doubts about the John Jay project but this conclusion – that the sexual orientation of child molesting clerics isn’t significant – doesn’t surprise us. Roughly half of our 9,000 members are women who were molested as girls by priests, brothers, nuns, bishops and seminarians. We’ve long seen that courts and media tend to minimize the harm done to females who are assaulted by clergy.

Statement by Barbara Blaine, SNAP founder and president:

The gender orientation of predator priests is irrelevant. What matters, though, is the church's deeply-rooted culture of sexual secrecy that stems from most priests' forbidden sexual activity.

When all sex by priests is wrong – dating, masturbation, porn, everything – then most priests will have sexual secrets. And they will be very reluctant to ‘rat out’ their brother priests who are known or suspected pedophiles.

Statement by Peter Isely, SNAP Midwest Director:

Since 2004, when John Jay College began tabulating numbers for the American bishops on priests that have committed sex crimes against children, nearly 1,000 newly identified priests have been reported to dioceses around the country as child molesters, averaging nearly 200 per year. In fact, last year a record number of priests were reported to have molested children, a staggering 311 newly identified priest offenders. The grand total of priests who have assaulted children in the United States over the past several decades is now nearing a staggering total of 6,000.

The John Jay “study” studies the wrong thing. The real issue has never been only about pedophile priests. It’s complicit church officials. That’s what Catholics and citizens need and deserve to know: why did thousands and thousands of cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns and other church employees ignore or conceal horrific child sex crimes by thousands of clerics? Have those church staff changed their behavior? We don’t know because bishops want everyone but themselves studied and blamed for their massive, historic and on-going refusal to protect children.

Brand new cases are still demonstrating the alarming pattern of bishops putting proven, admitted or credibly accused child molesting clerics back into ministry, the most serious betrayal of the Dallas Charter imaginable.

Just last month, for example, a New Jersey newspaper found out that a convicted predator priest had been quietly re-assigned to a hospital. (Neither the public, parishioners nor hospital staff had been warned.) After media inquiries, the hospital insisted that the priest be removed. (Remarkably, Newark Archbishop John Myers is now “re-considering” the cleric’s next assignment. See here.)

It also happened earlier this year in St. Louis, with Fr. Michael Freymuth. He was suspended a second time after news reports revealed he had been quietly reassigned with little or no public notice or warning.

And just three years ago in Fresno CA, Fr. Eric Swearingen was put back into parish ministry even after a jury found him guilty of child sex abuse in a civil trial.

Yet, none of the bishops who have been caught breaking their promises to the Catholic people are being censored, disciplined or fired for this behavior this week in Baltimore. Instead, they sit comfortably hearing a report about how an uptick in “divorce” rates and “drug” use in society at large somehow made priests go molest children in record numbers across the United States.

Everyone finally agrees, even the John Jay staff, that most victims take decades to come forward. That’s unlikely to change much. So of those who were raped or sodomized by priests, nuns bishops and seminarians in the 1980s and 1990s are likely still trapped in shame, silence, self-blame and confusion. Therefore, let’s avoid self-serving, dangerous assumptions that somehow the rate of predator priests is magically declining. Let’s be vigilant, not complacent.

The prudent approach, with the continuing large and alarming numbers of identified priest molesters, is also the moral approach. It’s to be careful, not complacent.

It’s simply irresponsible to ignore history, psychology and common sense. It’s wrong to use inadequate data to jeopardize the safety of kids.

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the nation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. The group was established in 1988 and has more than 9,000 members across the country. Despite the word “priest” in its title, SNAP has members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. For more information visit the SNAP website or call David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, 314-645-5915 home), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747), Peter Isely (414-429-7259), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688).

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Winner in Kennedy - Bishop Standoff

By Niall O’Dowd

(Editor’s note: This commentary was first published November 22 at

The decision to bar Congressman Patrick Kennedy from receiving Communion by Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin is a step too far.

Abortion is a complex and incredibly emotional issue, which has divided this country for decades. However, dialogue, not confrontation, is the way forward.

If we start drawing lines, then it starts to get utterly polarized and nasty. The Catholic Church is against the death penalty. Should Rudy Giuliani be banned also from the altar rails because he supports it?

Of course not. The way forward on all these issues is to begin and continue a dialogue, such as what is now happening over the issue in the health care reform bill.

There, the Catholic Church has won a major victory with the agreement of Democrats that federal funding for abortions be curtailed.

There is also a mood in the country that, as life is seen to be established earlier than previously thought, that the issue of late-term abortions has tipped decisively in their favor.

Those are real victories, fairly won in a very difficult and emotional environment.

The arguments on the other side are also compelling. For example, if you ban abortion completely (as in Ireland, where women are forced to go to England), the problem may actually get worse.

In that case, we return to back-street abortionists for the poor, while the rich will simply find another way.

Bishop Tobin is treading on treacherous turf here. It leaves no room for dialogue and even less for the kind of patient and long-term perspective that is needed.

Patrick Kennedy has freely admitted he is a less than perfect human being, that he has struggled with alcoholism and other vices. The fact that he has been so straightforward about his failings is a credit to him.

On this issue, he apparently feels equally as strongly as the bishop that his point of view must be heard. The result has been that instead of quiet diplomacy from both sides, we get a horrendous standoff that will inflame an issue already deeply controversial.

Nobody wins in that case.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Return to the Spirit

Michael Bayly discusses the efforts of
two renowned authors to remind us
of what religion is really all about.

Theologian and author Harvey Cox (pictured at right) was recently in the Twin Cities speaking about his new book, The Future of Faith, in the lecture series known as the Westminster Town Hall Forum. Although I was unable to attend, my friends Paula, Bernie, and Eileen heard Cox speak, and spoke highly of the ideas and insights he shared.

In the October 20 issue of the Christian Century, Episcopal priest, religious history professor, and author Randall Balmer reviewed Cox’sThe Future of Faith. Here’s what Balmer says about the book’s overall thesis.


Cox ushers the reader on an excursion through church history, which he divides into three eras: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of Spirit.

. . . Cox admires the early years of Christianity, which, he says, had “no standardized theology, no single pattern of governance, no uniform liturgy, and no commonly accepted scripture.” More important, the early church had no “clerical caste” during this Age of Faith, which lasted until early in the fourth century, when Constantine converted to Christianity.

The identification of religion with empire triggered the transition from faith to belief, as a clerical elite with dubious claims (Cox says) to apostolic authority sought to enforce uniformity of belief.

“This tendency to replicate the structure of empire,” writes Cox, “helps explain why so much of the Christian movement, which began as the persecuted victim of the Roman empire and provided an alternative to it, then became a sycophantic mimic of that empire and finally its obsequious acolyte.”

During the Age of Belief, which has prevailed (with some exceptions) to the present, Christianity “curdled into a top-heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.” Cox understands belief as the adherence to propositional truth that forms the basis for fundamentalism: “Faith had been coarsened into belief, and Christianity has been hobbled by this distortion ever since.”

Whereas early Christians allowed for multiple understandings and expressions of the faith, Christianity in this Age of Belief demanded conformity. Christianity, “a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership, congealed into a rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom.” Women, “who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges.”

But even amid the theological sludge of the Age of Belief, various adventurers pushed their way to the surface. Cox cites the mystics and the Pentecostals (though he neglects the Camisards). “Mystics always make prelates nervous, “Cox writes, “but they are always with us.”

Due in part to the vision and courage of these dissenters, Cox believes, Christianity now stands on the cusp of the Age of Spirit, which is characterized by a return to faith over belief, a renewed concern for the poor, and an openness to the Spirit.

Cox insists that the real catalyst is the shifting of the center of Christianity from the West to Africa, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region. “In those countries where the clerical leadership clings to the older model, the churches are empty,” he writes. “But in those areas of the world where creeds and hierarchies have been set aside to make way for the Spirit, like the stone rolled away from Christ’s grave in the Easter story, one senses life and energy.”


Two points: First, Cox’s framework reminds me somewhat of Karl Rahner’s three-epoch theory of Christian history, a theory succinctly summarized by theologian Terry Dosh in the April 2008 issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Second, one doesn’t only have to look abroad for evidence of what Cox describes as an emerging “life and energy” within Catholicism. I’m fortunate to be part of the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community – a vibrant intentional Catholic community that was formed after a large number of parishioners were compelled to move out of the South Minneapolis parish of St. Stephen’s after the chancery ordered that the parish conform its various liturgies to the rubrics of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). These liturgies had, over the past 40 years, evolved in ways that made the chancery uncomfortable. They had evolved in ways that saw the introduction of women altar servers, inclusive language, lay homilists, an understanding of the priesthood of the people, and the welcoming of LGBT people.

The Spirit of St. Stephen’s continues to thrive (a second weekend liturgy will soon be offered), which is more than can be said about the parish of St. Stephen’s. What I believe we’re witnessing in cases like the Spirit of St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s in Brisbane, Australia, is a clear example of the “return to faith over belief” that Cox writes about.

I think much of the current tension within Roman Catholicism – and indeed wider Christianity – comes from the fact that we’re living through this transition from (to use Cox’s terminology) the Age of Belief to the Age of Spirit. My concern is that because Roman Catholicism still operates as a feudal caste system, those within the tradition open to being active participants in this transition will be simply shown the door, and Roman Catholicism will be reduced to, in the words of David Carlin, the status of a “minor and relatively insignificant sect.”

In reviewing Carlin’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Russell Shaw summarizes the grim scenario put forth by Carlin as follows: “[So-called] traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, says Carlin, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in ‘a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,’ with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have now.”

Yet, as I’ve noted previously, I’m not in the least bit interested in circling the wagons and living in any type of ghetto. Neither are the Catholics I know. Yet a ghetto is exactly what the current clerical leadership seems intent on creating for us. I’m drawn instead to a Church open to the Spirit, a Church that recognizes and celebrates itself as the Risen Body of Christ, alive and afoot in the world; a Church unafraid of journeying and engagement, of growth and change.

Interestingly, though not really surprisingly given that we are indeed in the midst of a transition or paradigm shift in religious consciousness, Harvey Cox isn’t the only person speaking about moving beyond an understanding and expression of religion that’s all about the need to define, defend, and divide.

In her latest book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong (pictured at left) contends that religion is more about practice than belief; more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy.

Writes Armstrong:

Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.

True. But is it always that easy to separate belief from practice? Don’t our beliefs in large part shape what we do? Yes, but then perhaps Armstrong would argue that our beliefs should likewise be always open to being shaped by our ongoing practices within the context of an ever-changing world.

Elsewhere in her book, Armstrong observes:

A deliberate and principled reticence about God . . . was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so difficult today.

In discussing Armstrong’s latest work, Brian McGrath Davis notes:

For most of Western history “belief” has meant nothing like what it means today. Today, when someone asks me if I believe in God, for example, they are asking if I assent to the proposed verity or the factual existence of God — and usually it is in reference to a very specific understanding of that God. Similarly, if I'm asked if I have “faith in Christ”, the question is whether I agree with the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead, or some form of that story. In both cases, questions of “belief” and questions of “faith” require answers of thought. Yet, as surprising as it may seem, these understandings are relatively recent. “Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God. Belief in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus; it was a commitment to do the gospel, to be a follower of Christ. In neither case were “belief” or “faith” a matter of intellectual assent.

This, of course, correlates with Harvey Cox’s contention that during much of Christian history, “faith had been coarsened into belief, and Christianity has been hobbled by this distortion ever since.”

In conclusion, I share the following excerpt from Christopher Hart’s July 5, 2009, London Times review of Armstrong’s The Case for God. Enjoy!


Both Bible-bashing fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists have a similar idea of what “God” means, [Armstrong] points out, and it is an absurdly crude one. They seem to think the word denotes a large, powerful man we can’t see. Such a theology is, she says, “somewhat infantile.” The only difference between the fundamentalists and the atheists is that the former affirm this God’s existence, the latter deny it and try to demolish it.

The new atheists, Armstrong says with impeccable restraint, “are not theologically literate”, and “their polemic…lacks intellectual depth”. In contrast, she usefully reminds us, both Galileo and Darwin, supposed icons of modern atheism, were adamant that their discoveries had no impact on religious faith. Equally humble in a different way, Socrates pushed rationality and intellect to the point where they fail: you reach his famous aporia, and realise you really know nothing at all. The new atheists do the opposite. Their rationality and intellect bring them to a place of absolute knowledge, a height from where they survey all history, and pronounce with finality on pretty much everything. Never trust anyone who knows this much.

Yet for centuries, ideas of God and the Bible were far more subtle and profound than today’s atheism or fundamentalism can conceive. “We have lost the ‘knack’ for religion,” says Armstrong. It is as if the success of science in the material world has rewired our brains, made us tone-deaf to myth. “Is it true?” we keep asking, meaning, “Did it really happen? Is it literally true? If not, we’re not interested.”

She draws on 2,000 years of Christian theology and mysticism to demonstrate rich alternative ideas of the divine. Back in the 4th century AD, long before Wittgenstein and Derrida, Bishop Basil of Caesarea understood all about the limits of language, and stated them rather more clearly, too. “Thought cannot travel outside was, nor imagination beyond beginning.” God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language. Earlier still, the Christian scholar Origen (185-254) discussed the “incongruities and impossibilities” in scripture. The fact that Dawkins et al think that pointing out the Bible’s imperfections undermine Jewish or Christian belief only demonstrates their ignorance of the traditions they presume to undermine. Of course it’s not meant to be understood literally, the early Christians seem to sigh across the centuries.

Armstrong further shows how even the words “I believe” have changed, and become scientised, to mean “I assert these propositions to be empirically correct.” Yet the original Greek pisteuo means something much more like “I give my heart and my loyalty.” In the gospels, she says, quoting the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus himself sees God not as “an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand.”

Yet thanks to the misapplication of science to religious faith, we remain literal-minded and spiritually immature, frightened of the silence and solitude in which the Ancient of Days, the Unnameable, might be experienced, though never understood. We need to think of God not as a being, but as Being. Armstrong points us towards a vast tradition in all religions in which, in essence, you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing. In Islam, all speaking or theorising about the nature of Allah is mere zannah, fanciful - guesswork. Instead, try “silence, reverence and awe,” she says; or music, ritual, the steady habit of compassion, and a graceful acceptance of mystery and “unknowing.”

As a haunting example, she recounts this unforgettable story. Among the many Jews who lost their faith in Auschwitz, there was one group who decided to put God on trial. How could an omnipotent and benevolent deity allow this horror? Either he didn’t exist, or he wasn’t worthy of their love anyway. “They condemned God to death. The presiding rabbi pronounced the verdict, then went on calmly to announce that it was time for the evening prayer.” God is dead — but, Armstrong suggests, all we have lost is a mistaken and limited notion of God anyway: a big, powerful, invisible man who does stuff. Instead, we need to recapture the spiritual imagination, sensitivity and meditative humility of the pre-moderns, who she so admires.

The Case for God simmers with a quiet spiritual optimism. It is dense and brilliant, chastening and consoling. Whether or not it sells as well as the latest Hitchens or Dawkins will be a measure of us, not the book.

Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Task Force Responds to CCCR

The Progressive Catholic Voice is a founding member organization of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), which recently received the following response to its co-chairs’ open letter to James Lundholm-Eades of the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Task Force.

As Lundholm-Eades notes, many members of CCCR also sent him copies of this open letter. His letter to the co-chairs of CCCR therefore serves as his reply to these people as well.

One final note: The CCCR Board is prayerfully reflecting on how to respond (if at all) to Lundholm-Eades’s letter, and would appreciate your thoughts on this matter. You can comment here, or e-mail CCCR at


October 29, 2009

Catholic Coalition for Church Reform
2080 Edgcumbe Road
St. Paul, MN 55116

Dear Paula, Michael, and Bernie;

I am writing to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated October 19th, 2009. Thank you for your input to the planning process.

As you know we have been gathering the voices of the Archdiocese now for many months. During that time I have clearly heard a number of coalition members speaking your message and asking questions at those meetings. I am glad you and your coalition membership have taken advantage of the opportunity to be heard. I have personally had the pleasure of one on one conversation with some coalition members after some of the consultative meetings and have taken note of the concerns expressed in those conversations. Your letter and those concerns expressed during and after consultative meetings have become part of the record to be passed to the Task Force in summative form. Since receiving your letter, I have received photocopies of it from several of the members of your coalition. Please take this response as my response to them all.

I read with particular interest your list of questions. Some of them are clearly outside the scope of this planning process. Some others call into question the framework of the Catholic faith that are simply part of our Catholic belief and tradition as delineated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You and your membership will know from your attendance at the meetings where you added your voice to the consultative process that the outcomes of the planning process will be consistent with the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church.

Finally, if your questions are a reflection of ongoing and serious concerns you have about the beliefs and traditions of our Catholic Church to the degree I sense they are, then it may be that your journey to God may well be served by exploring protestant denominations where your views will find broader acceptance. I prayerfully wish you well in your journey wherever it leads you.

Thanks again for your input to the planning process.

Yours in Christ,

Jim Lundholm-Eades
Director of Parish Services and Planning