Monday, August 29, 2011

Quote of the Day

Christ set up a community, not a hierarchy, and that is the priesthood and church we must go back to.

That church was a humble church, it was a servant church; we need a different culture of authority. We need a culture of authority which facilitates people because the real energy now will come from lay people, not clerics. And I think where the renewal will begin will be with the lay people facilitating them as equals, their priesthood as well as the ordained priesthood.

– Fr. Harry Bohan
Quoted in Marie Crowe's article,
"Church 'Needs to Undergo Revolution'"
The Independent (Ireland)
August 28, 2011

Hermeneutics as Weapon

By Robert McClory

Note: This commentary was first published August 26, 2011, by the National Catholic Reporter.

Beware of hermeneutics! It’s a $25 Greek word, referring to the god Hermes, considered the inventor of language and speech, and it deals with the principles of interpretation used in examining the meaning of texts. In theological and philosophical circles, hermeneutics has a long, relatively polite history as scholars probed the writings of masters and came up with diverse (though not necessarily contradictory) meanings based on their hermeneutic perspective. Picture a formal dissertation with two scholars dissecting from different points of view a proposition (preferably in Latin) from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, while a more or less rapt audience of students looks on.

That was then, this is now.

For hermeneutics as used by growing numbers of the hierarchy has become a blunt instrument insofar as the interpretation of Vatican II is concerned. Pope Benedict really got the ball rolling in his less-than-cheery pre-Christmas speech to the members of the Vatican curia in 2005. A large part of the difficulty in implementing the council, he said, stems from the fact “that two contrary hermeneutics came face-to-face and quarreled with each other.” The first is the hermeneutic of reform, which the pope also describes as the hermeneutic “of renewal in the continuity of the one subject – church – which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying people of God.”

The second, which he calls “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” is based “on a false concept of the church and hence of the council, as if the former were from man alone and the latter a sort of constituent assembly.” This hermeneutic, he said, “has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and is also one trend of modern theology.” The false interpretation caused confusion, he explained, while “the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”

This is hardly an invitation to discussion and dialogue. When one hermeneutic is set against another – the correct vs. the incorrect, the right vs. the wrong, the one based on what “the Lord has given” us vs. the one based on “man alone,” there's no possibility of moving ahead. Classic hermeneutecists, I think, would be appalled.

This peculiar dichotomy was further explained in a 2009 speech Cardinal Franc Rode delivered before some 600 clerics and religious at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He was at the time the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. His talk was directed specifically at women religious, and it is Rode who initiated the controversial Vatican investigation of U.S. religious orders. “The hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the attempts at renewal of religious life,” he said, and much of his talk dealt with how the “aggiornamento,” the updating called for by the council, had been overtaken by a “pseudo-aggiornamento,” a “naturalism which involved the radical centering of man on himself, the rejection of the supernatural and the supremacy of a climate of radical subjectivism.”

The cardinal admitted that the language of the council document on religious life recommended ideas hitherto unheard of in church documents: “adaptation to the demands of the apostolate,” “adjusting their way of life to modern needs,” expressing “poverty in new forms,” in obedience “superiors should gladly listen to their subjects,” “suitable instruction …in the currents and attitudes and thought prevalent in social life today.” But such innovations must be tempered and qualified, said Rode, by other guidelines in the document which stress the more traditional, ascetic, demanding and holier aspects of religious life.

Rode said his remarks applied not only to religious but to all Catholics who have allowed their faith to become distorted by allegiance to the hermeneutic of rupture: “In our day the prevailing climate of agnosticism, relativism and subjectivism is frequently taken as having a normative value that belongs by right to the word of God. We must energetically oppose reformers who contend that the church must abandon her claims to absolute truth, must allow dissent from her own doctrines, and must be governed according to the principles of a liberal democracy.”

In the final talk at the conference, Robert Morlino, bishop of Madison, Wis., said it’s a matter of teaching Catholics to speak properly. “Many if not most ... have learned the language of the discontinuity hermeneutic," he said. “And in order to learn the language Pope John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict are trying to teach us they have to unlearn the language that they have learned.”

Indeed, Vatican II did teach a new language, and most Catholics welcomed it. But it has little resemblance to the language Morlino wants us to learn. In his book, What Happened at Vatican II, historian John O’Malley vividly contrasts the pre-Vatican II emphasis on church teaching with the new emphasis the council had introduced. The shift, he said, was “from commands to invitation, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust . . . from fault finding to appreciation . . . from behavior modification to inner appropriation.”

Turn that paragraph around, and you will see the direction in which the church as institution is being moved today: from invitations to commands, from persuasion to threats, from conscience to coercion, from trust to suspicion, from inclusion to exclusion, etc. etc.

New developments ranging from the excommunication of anyone assisting at a woman’s ordination, to the forced resignation of a bishop who even speaks about the subject, to the exclusion of girl servers in some parishes or dioceses, to a surprise assault by a bishops’ doctrine committee on the book of an eminent theologian, to the suggestion by the executive director of that committee that some theologians today are “a curse and affliction upon the church” – these are the direct results we can expect from an exaggerated, extremist misuse of a “hermeneutics of continuity” to quash all discussion.

It’s not only discussion that’s getting quashed. In this coordinated campaign from above, it’s Vatican II that is being reduced to a false caricature of itself and its achievements dismissed as aberrations that must be corrected.

– Robert McClory
National Catholic Reporter
August 26, 2011

Recommended Off-site Link:
Hermeneutics of Discontinuity? – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, August 28, 2011).
Robert McClory on a Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent
The Wild Reed (June 10, 2008).

Image: Michael J. Bayly.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What the Pope Could Have Done to Feel More Welcome

By Ken Briggs

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published August 23 by the National Catholic Reporter.

Not long ago, Spanish Catholics were among the staunchest opponents of much of what Vatican II proposed to renew the church.

Last week the Spanish people, most of them probably still Catholic in some sense, took to the streets to protest the cost of Pope Benedict's visit to the World Youth Day festivities – an estimated $72 million.

Not long ago, the public would have no doubt given silent support to a papal visit regardless of cost. Catholicism was the state religion, a partner in governing with Gen. Franco, a guarantor of the old order under-girded by unquestionable certainties. It had given birth to Opus Dei and rejected freedom of religious conscience.

Today, under democratic rule and economic disaster, a sizable portion of the Spanish public denounced the cost of the pope's visit as scandalous in the face of more pressing social needs. Spain has an overall unemployment rate of 21 percent; 46 percent of young people are without jobs.

It's ironic, of course, that the church's youth festival should be activated in this climate of youth misfortune. Most protesters seemed to agree that there was something terribly wrong with this picture.

Backers of the pope's visit argue that the week-long event will bring in more than $200 million in tourist money. Where those revenues end up is another question entirely. Profits don't trickle down or generally contribute to lasting economic progress.

The hostility sparked by the visit has cast a shadow over the entire event. A quarter century from now, the marchers in the streets are likely to be remembered more than the orderly crowd of Youth Day attendees, for better or worse. The point is that the Vatican harmed itself by insisting on going ahead with an event that contradicted its own social justice teaching.

They could have avoided it altogether by taking a page from those teachings. Imagine if the Pope had offered to cover the Spanish government's trip expenses and set up a fund specifically to help relieve the poor and unemployed. Even giving a healthy fraction of those expenses would have been in keeping with the church's own call for sacrifice and compassion.

Such a move, done sincerely and with conviction, could have turned a disaster into a sign of hope, that the church meant what it said and heard the appeals of the needy.

During his papacy, Benedict has been in tension with the Spanish government and decried what he sees as its secularism. Spain allows gay marriage, has relaxed abortion regulations and discontinued required religious education in public schools. To the pope, this is breaking faith with its Catholic heritage.

But reaching out to help those who disagree would be even more meaningful and noteworthy. There is nothing to indicate that the pope was less willing to respond to the protesters because they were dissenters. But whatever the reason, Benedict and his advisers made a regrettable decision with negative consequences that could last a long time.

Related Off-site Links:
World Youth Day – Money and Mana – Cathleen Kaveny (Commonweal, August 23, 2011).
Why Was There Very Little Mentioned About the Resurrection at WYD? – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, August 21, 2011).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Big Deal or No Big Deal?

By Paula Ruddy
Catholic Coalition for Church Reform

Something happened this past weekend, not a big deal on a global scale of injustices, but it got to me. This is what happened:

Back in June, a group of parishioners from a lovely suburban Catholic parish invited CCCR to facilitate a Listening Session at one of their bimonthly meetings, an August Saturday morning adult gathering. People deeply concerned with being the Church in the world. Committed people, well educated and reflective people.

CCCR readily agreed. Four Listening Session facilitators met with the group’s planner, had a conversation with one of the liaisons to staff, cleared calendars, printed handouts, got ready. This was a great opportunity to hear what these people, committed to living the life of the spirit, were thinking. It was an opportunity to plan with them for responsible action in our local church — for its mission and survival.

You guessed it. The call came on Wednesday before the Saturday gathering. The parish told its members they could not hold the meeting in the church building. The group meets there regularly but on this occasion they were not welcome in their own church. You know the hassle that then ensued — between work schedules, emailing and calling people, trying to get the sense of what the group wanted to do, trying to make a respectful decision. Bottom line -- the group decided to cancel.

CCCR respects the group’s decision. They are free and responsible adults following their consciences. They too may be disappointed and saddened by the action of their parish. We empathize with that. They don’t want to jeopardize the possibility of meeting on their own church property in the future.

Who made the decision for the parish to put the kibosh on this meeting and why? Was it the pastor? He is reportedly out of town. A staff member? Yes, it was reportedly a staff member, citing the technicality that the group had not reserved one of the available rooms as well as Archdiocesan disapproval of CCCR.

And why is CCCR non-grata? We want to discuss the “magisterial teachings” of the Church.

This is a tiny incident. I hear people responding: No big deal. Get over it! Coalition members have been shut out of church property for years — CTA, CPCSM, Dignity, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, anyone who asks a question. You should have expected it, should have moved the meeting elsewhere in the first place. Don’t make a fuss about it for such a small number of people. The parishioners have to pick their battles. We have to be strategic. That wouldn’t happen in my parish, thank God!

Okay, I can get over it, but is it really no big deal? Institutional support for the human need to question, to think, to understand and make sense of the world and our mission in it is an absolute necessity, not a luxury. If you are lucky, you may get this need met in your parish, but it is starved in our local church, the Archdiocese. It is a need particularly strong in young people and in the Vatican II generation. The church may be able to survive the dwindling and death of the old folks who were awakened by Vatican II, but can it survive the departure of the young who get no support for their awakening minds? Authoritative fiats from the “magisterium” do not satisfy the questioning mind.

CCCR calls for pastoral leadership at the archdiocesan level for the sake of the Church’s mission, leadership that cares for human needs. We need a robust culture of reflective, imaginative, nuanced moral reasoning. I suppose that is, inevitably, threatening. But we are on minimal life support here, and it is a very big deal.

We can’t wait around for the Archbishop’s approval. The Council of the Baptized, to be launched at Synod 2011 on September 17, is our attempt to provide for ourselves a unified, reflective and deliberative discernment of the sense of the faithful in our local church. Come and help. Go to

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Urgent Tasks for Church Renewal

A review by Peter Phan of

Wake Up Lazarus: On Catholic Renewal

by Pierre Hegy

iUniverse Press, 2011

Editor's Note: This review was first published August 3, 2011, in The National Catholic Reporter.

Let me state up front and categorically: This is by any standard the best book on church renewal I’ve read, especially on renewal for the Roman Catholic church. Pierre Hegy, who has a doctorate from the University of Paris, with his thesis on authority in the Catholic church after the Second Vatican Council, is professor emeritus of sociology at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and the founder of a highly successful book review website. His earlier publications deal with post-Vatican II Catholicism and feminist thought. This volume is part of Hegy’s ongoing research on the contemporary Catholic church.

The book’s provocative title refers, of course, to the Johannine account of the resurrection of Lazarus, but its immediate origin is traced to “Operation Lazarus,” started by Fr. Peter Chiara. Chiara, pastor of St. Mary Church in East Islip, N.Y., decided in the early 1970s to revive his parish. Personal letters were sent to all the 6,400 families with “The church is dead” on the envelope. “Operation Lazarus” called for four evening discussions on how to resurrect the church. About 1,200 people showed up every evening. They were divided into groups to discuss what should be done, especially in the areas of religious education, the liturgy and service to the poor. They wanted to have more input on what the parish should do. Twenty people were elected to serve as an advisory group. Unfortunately, shortly afterward Chiara got sick and ceased to be pastor of the parish. (He died in October 2010.) The parish revival seems not to have a long-lasting effect. In 2007 Mass attendance was again very low.

The Lazarus metaphor is particularly apt for the current state of the Roman Catholic church in the West, including the American Catholic church. As a social institution it is moribund if not dead. Like Lazarus, however, it can be revived, not by a divine miracle and fiat, or “cheap grace,” but only through long-term and thoroughgoing church renewal -- certainly not by restoration, or “the reform of the reform.” But how to bring about this Catholic church renewal? It is here that Hegy’s book makes its unique contribution.

Most current writings advocating church reforms remain at the abstract theological level, at times with pious invocations of the Holy Spirit as the agent of change. While ecclesiology and pneumatology still furnish the foundations for church renewal, they need to be informed by accurate and up-to-date social data. With vast expertise in what he calls “pastoral sociology,” Hegy provides, in the first three chapters, the “inconvenient statistics” (the title of chapter one); and the three main reasons why Christianity in general (chapter two) and the U.S. Catholic church in particular (chapter three) are experiencing a catastrophic decline.

Surveys document beyond doubt the precipitous loss of membership in mainline churches and the rapid growth of conservative evangelical churches. Some 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics; one-third of Americans born Catholic have left the church -- and almost half of these former Catholics joined Protestant, mostly evangelical, churches. The book is replete with tables and statistics, but readers should not be daunted by them. Hegy supplies lucid and helpful summaries of the findings, and persons (like me) with scant knowledge of sociology can easily understand them.

Of greater importance are the factors that Hegy derives from sociological surveys to account for the spiritual decline of U.S. Christianity in general and of the U.S. Catholic church in particular. These factors will not be music to either conservative or liberal ears. They include the retreat of Christian churches from the public square, their losing battle against omnipresent consumerism, and their failure to transmit religious and moral values amid cafeteria-style religion. The Catholic church in particular suffers from church-centeredness rather than Christ-centeredness, a deficient sacramental theology and practice with focus on the external elements, ritualism, a decline in popular devotions, an emphasis on the Eucharist as sacrifice rather than as community celebration, and the lack of a Catholic subculture.

If these are the reasons for the decline of the Catholic church, then, Hegy argues, “renewal is much more than the reformation of church structures and changes in priestly ordination. ... To the extent that the post-Vatican II liberal agenda concentrated on these two items, it failed and has little future -- which does not make the reform of church structures any less desirable. Clearly what is needed is spiritual (i.e., evangelical) renewal, not just structural reform.” On the other hand, Hegy gives little comfort to conservatives, since his prescriptions for church renewal are diametrically opposed to their restorationist agenda that insists on loyalty and obedience to the hierarchy, especially the pope, and total orthodoxy.

Hegy provides snapshots into two flourishing American Christian communities, one a nondenominational church, the other a Catholic parish. The vitality of the first church, with the pseudonym of “the Bayville Community Church,” is part of the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. It is built on “neither doctrinal innovation nor charismatic communities ... but on assiduous prayer and a sense of mission.” The Catholic parish is “St. Mary Star of Hope,” a pseudonym for a parish in the suburb of Chicago, with 3,800 families and only one resident priest. It is a laity-driven parish, with all ministries carried out by the laity. Its vibrancy derives from its structure as “a community of communities” consisting of “scores of small Christian communities meeting weekly” and as “a community of ministries.” (The chapter describing the history and life of St. Mary’s is worth its pages in gold!)

On the basis of these sociological studies, Hegy proposes a long-term plan for renewing the Catholic church. He first reviews various church reform programs, from the 1992 document of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States” to the RENEW movement. He examines the evangelical “purpose-driven church” founded by Rick Warren in Saddleback Valley, Calif., with its emphasis on missions, and the Willow Creek Community Church founded by Bill Hybels in a Chicago suburb, with its emphasis on Christ-centeredness and spiritual growth.

From these reform initiatives Hegy lists six urgent tasks that comprise his church renewal plan:

• End the exodus of young Catholics and the non-transmission of values;

• Propose paths of spiritual growth rather than ideological programs;

• Devise concrete ways for the church to be in the world but not of the world, using new forms of renunciation, rejecting consumerism, and countercultural ways of life;

• Act as a servant church rather than a power structure;

• Support a moral culture rather than a moral theology;

• Develop a celebration of sacraments as moments of spiritual transformation of the individual and the community rather than rites of passage.

A tall order indeed, but how to achieve it?

In his important, challenging, and insightful closing chapter, Hegy lays out in great detail the three steps of his plan for church renewal.

There are detailed proposals on how to make passive attendees at Sunday Mass (including the priest himself!) into active participants in the celebration of the Eucharist, from beginning to end, in every single part of the Mass. Next come proposals on how to transform the active Mass attendees into involved members of the local church or parish through the four forms of ministry communities -- worship, service, formation and missions. Here, Hegy offers extremely rich insights into the role of the choir (not performance but facilitating prayer), religious education (not information but community formation), devotions (not private piety but structured forms of discipleship), and eucharistic spirituality. The final step is leading the involved members into totally committed discipleship, especially through spiritual growth and missionary/evangelizing activities.

If you have no time to read the entire book, read at least Pages 231-275, every single one of them, slowly and meditatively, and let Hegy’s ideas and proposals sink in. You need not agree with his every thought and proposal, but do take them extremely seriously; the very life of the Catholic church may well depend on them.

Fr. Peter C. Phan is the inaugural holder of the Ignacio Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University in Washington.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Encouragment for Those Disappointed with the Church

By Leonardo Boff

Editor's Note: This article was first published August 13, 2011, on Leonardo Boff's website.

There is great disappointment with the institutional Catholic Church. A double emigration is happening: one is exterior, persons who simply leave the Church, and the other is interior, those who remain in the Church but who no longer feel that she is their spiritual home. They continue believing, in spite of the Church.

It’s not for nothing. The present pope has taken some radical initiatives that have divided the ecclesiastic body. He chose a path of confrontation with two important episcopacies, the German and the French, when he introduced the Latin Mass. He articulated an obscure reconciliation with the Church of the followers of Lebfrevre; gutted the principal renewal institutions of Vatican Council II, especially ecumenism, absurdly denying the title of "Church" to those Churches that are not Catholic or Orthodox. When he was a Cardinal he was gravely permissive with pedophiles, and his concern with AIDS borders the inhumane.

The present Catholic Church is submerged in a rigorous winter. The social base that supports the antiquated model of the present pope is comprised of conservative groups, more interested in the media, in the logic of the market, than in proposing an adequate response to the present grave problems. They offer a "lexotan-Christianity" good for pacifying anxious consciences, but alienated from the suffering humanity.

It is urgent that we animate these Christians about to emigrate with what is essential in Christianity. It certainly is not the Church, that was never the object of the preaching of Jesus. He announced a dream, the Kingdom of God, in contraposition to the Kingdom of Caesar; the Kingdom of God that represents an absolute revolution in relationships, from the individual to the divine and the cosmic.

Christianity appeared in history primarily as a movement and as the way of Christ. It predates its grounding in the four Gospels and in the doctrines. The character of a spiritual path means a type of Christianity that has its own course. It generally lives on the edge and, at times, at a critical distance from the official institution. But it is born and nourished by the permanent fascination with the figure, and the liberating and spiritual message of Jesus of Nazareth. Initially deemed the "heresy of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24,5) or simply, a "heresy" (Acts 28,22) in the sense of a "very small group," Christianity was acquiring autonomy until its followers, according to The Acts of The Apostles (11,36), were called, "Christians."

The movement of Jesus is certainly the most vigorous force of Christianity, stronger than the Churches, because it is neither bounded by institutions, nor is it a prisoner of doctrines and dogmas, founded in a specific cultural background. It is composed of all types of people, from the most varied cultures and traditions, even agnostics and atheists who let themselves be touched by the courageous figure of Jesus, by the dream he announced, a Kingdom of love and liberty, by his ethic of unconditional love, especially for the poor and the oppressed, and by the way he assumed the human drama, amidst humiliation, torture and his execution on the cross. Jesus offered an image of God so intimate and life-friendly that it is difficult to disregard, even by those who do not believe in God. Many people say, "if there is a God, it has to be like the God of Jesus."

This Christianity as a spiritual path is what really counts. However, from being a movement it soon became a religious institution, with several forms of organization. In its bosom were developed different interpretations of the figure of Jesus, that were transformed into doctrines, and gathered into the official Gospels. The Churches, when they assumed institutional character, established criteria of belonging and of exclusion, doctrines such as identity reference and their own rites of celebration. Sociology, and not theology, explains that phenomenon. The institution always exists in tension with the spiritual path. The ideal is that they develop together, but that is rare. The most important, in any case, is the spiritual path. This has a future and animates the meaning of life.

The problem of the Roman Catholic Church is her claim of being the only true one. The correct approach is for all the Churches to recognize each other, because they reveal different and complementary dimensions of the message of the Nazarene. What is important is for Christianity to maintain its character as a spiritual path. That can sustain so many Christian men and women in the face of the mediocrity and irrelevancy into which the present Catholic Church has fallen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

From Jesus' Socialism to Capitalistic Christianity

By Gregory Paul

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published August 12, 2011, by The Washington Post.

A truly strange thing has happened to American Christianity. A set of profound contradictions have developed within modern conservative Christianity, big and telling inconsistencies that have long slipped under the radar of public knowledge, and are only now beginning to be explicitly noted by critics of the religious and economic right.

Here is what is peculiar. Many conservative Christians, mostly Protestant but also a number of Catholics, have come to believe and proudly proclaim that the creator of the universe favors free wheeling, deregulated, union busting, minimal taxes especially for wealthy investors, plutocrat-boosting capitalism as the ideal earthly scheme for his human creations. And many of these Christian capitalists are ardent followers of Ayn Rand, who was one of – and many of whose followers are – the most hard-line anti-Christian atheist/s you can get. Meanwhile many Christians who support the capitalist policies associated with social Darwinistic strenuously denounce Darwin’s evolutionary science because it supposedly leads to, well, social Darwinism!

Meanwhile atheists, secularists and evolutionist are denounced as inventing the egalitarian evils of anti-socially Darwinistic socialism and communism. It’s such a weird stew of incongruities that it sets one’s head spinning. Social researchers like myself ask, how did these internal conflict come about? And why are not liberals and progressives doing the logical thing and taking full advantage of the inconsistencies of right wing libertarianism by loudly exposing the contradictions?

To understand why the pro-capitalist stance of many modern religious conservatives is at odds with Christian doctrine we need to start with the Gospels.

Jesus is no free marketeer. Improving one’s earthly financial circumstances is not nearly as critical as preparing for the end times that will arrive at any minute. He does offer substantial encouragement for the poor, and warns the wealthy that they are in grave danger of blowing their prospects of reaching paradise, as per the metaphor of a rich person entering heaven being as difficult as a camel passing through the eye of the needle (a narrow passageway designed to hinder intruders). This caution makes sense: sociological research is confirming that the more securely prosperous individuals and societies are, the more likely they are to lose the faith. A basic point of core Christian doctrine is that the wealthy have no more access to heaven than anyone else (and in fact may have less), offering hope to the impoverished rejected by cults that court the elites. This remains true in Catholicism, in which being poor does not constitute evidence of a personal deficiency, and church authorities decry the excesses of unrestrained capital at the expense of social justice.

But to understand just how non-capitalistic Christianity is supposed to be we turn to the first chapter after the gospels, Acts, which describes the events of the early church. Chapters 2 and 4 state that all “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. . . . No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. . . . There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”

Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx – who likely got the general idea from the gospels.

The pro-capitalist Christians who are aware of these passages wave them away even though it is the only explicit description of Christian economics in the Bible.

To get just how central collectivism is to Christian canon, consider that the Bible contains the first description of socialism in history. Anti-socialist Christians also claim that the Biblical version was voluntary. Aside from it being obvious that the biblical version of God was not the anti-socialist Christian capitalists commonly proclaim he was, some dark passages in Acts indicate how deeply pro-socialist the New Testament deity is. Chapter 5 details how when a church member fails to turn over all his property to the church “he fell down and died,” when his wife later did the same “she fell down . . . and died. . . . Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

Dear readers, does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death? Not only is socialism a Christian invention, so is its extreme communistic variant. The claim by many Christians that Christ hates socialism is untrue, while no explicit description of capitalism is found in the Bible – not surprising because it had not yet evolved.

So how did so much of Christianity come to reject socialism? That is not hard to figure out. In the early Protestant Netherlands, Switzerland and England capital became the dominant economic driver. Of course members of a religion want to think that God approves of what they are up to. So many (but not all) Protestants began to cherry pick those Biblical passages that could be massaged to seemingly support laissez-faire markets while pretty much ignoring those that clearly don’t. This works because, as surveys show, most Christians don’t actually read the bulk of the Bible, and people are mentally skilled at dismissing the awkward passages they do come across. Christians really took the theory that God is pro-capital to its extreme in what has be come the least socialistic and most Jesus-following of the advanced democracies, the USA, where many see the nation as an exceptional, God blessed “Shining City on the Hill” they think stands as the exemplar of Godly capitalism to the world.

In Puritan doctrine only the few destined for heaven can enjoy earthly wealth – that’s why there aren’t many rich folks – and poverty is the widespread sign of being destined for hell. But Puritanism was too dour for most Americans, so the notion that God wants his many followers to become as well-heeled as possible really took off with the emergence of the celebratory, self help oriented evangelical and Pentecostal Prosperity Christianity that the likes of Amy McPherson began to promote at the same time the modern corporate-consumer culture arose after the First World War.

The intellectual foundations for the alliance between capital and God were laid after the Second World War by Catholic William Buckley, who, like some others contrived to maneuver around their churches’ skepticism about mercantile interests, worked to convert frugal church goers into materialistic consumers who spend their Sundays watching spectator sports and charging up interest loaded debt at the mall.

Back in the 1800s the non-theist Herbert Spencer adapted the evolutionary science developed by Darwin into what has become known as social Darwinism – even though the biologist had little interest in socioeconomic issues, as well as a live and let live attitude about religion. It was Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest” that Darwin worked into later editions of his biology texts. Many Christians – logically concerned at the threat that a naturalistic explanation of human origins posed for popular belief in a supernatural creator – reacted by blaming harsh Darwinian biology for creating the similarly harsh “Darwinian” socioeconomics that they saw as responsible for the ills of the modern world.

At the same time socialists and communists were adapting those aspects of evolutionary science that they liked (a god-free origin of our world) while rejecting those they did not (the anti-egalitarianism integral to survival of the fittest free markets caused Marx and Engels to denounce evolution as a “bitter satire” on man and nature, and Stalin would ban pre-deterministic genetics for contradicting the blank slate theory of communism). While the communists drove the reasonable concept of social equality into the ground, Ayn Rand did the same with individual liberty. Because she hated the teeniest expression of socialism, and because the concept was in the archaic Bible long before some non-theists decided it was the wave of the future, she promoted an anti-Christian, pro-evolution atheism so extreme that even most atheists including myself reject her claim to have philosophically absolutely disproved the existence of any god. But many influential conservative Christians have embraced her expressly atheistic theory of Objectivism that in her books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, they propose that government must be shrunk to a bare minimum so socially Darwinist that it dances with anarchy. Only then can entrepreneurial greed have the free run that liberty demands. Hence Rand’s more nobly titled Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are required reading for the staff of Paul Ryan.

Reagan’s economic advisor, Milton Friedman, was an anti-religious Objectivist Rand devotee. So is Alan Greenspan. Skeptics Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer are atheistic libertarians. In the Randian hyper-materialistic world those who are on the financial make are the exalted makers, the impoverished that accept tax payer assistance are parasitic takers who need to fend for themselves. A radical modernist ideology in greater antithesis to the traditional scriptural favoring of the poor over the rich can hardly be imagined. Yet the economics of the plutocratic Republican Party that embraces the Christian, anti-Darwinist creationist right are essentially those of the uberatheist, anti-creationist, Darwin-adoring Christianity-loathing Ayn Rand. So we have Christian creationists like Jay Richards writing books titled Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. Can a stranger amalgam of opposing opinions be devised?

What I do not get from a sociological perspective is why – rather than letting the right avoid being called out for decade after decade – progressives from pious to atheist (most being liberals) as well as the mainstream news media have not been exposing the fascinating incoherence of the right wing’s anti-Darwinian biology, pro-Darwinian economics? Logically Stewart, Maddow, Olbermann, Maher et al. should on a regular basis challenge Christian libertarians on how Palin, Bachmann, Coulter, Beck, Limbaugh, Gingrich et al. can reject as ungodly evil the hard line socialism that is explicitly enforced by their God in the Bible they profess to read and believe? And how can those libertarians who manage to be devout Christians fawn over Ayn Rand whose entire philosophy is a condemnation of Christian doctrine? Also that O’Reilly and Bennett explain how they can continue to be in opposition to their pope who issued the newest encyclical reaffirming the churches opposition to libertarian economics. And ask if a person opposes evolution because it leads to ungodly societal chaos then how can the same person endorse the economics that most closely replicate biological evolution? It does not make practical sense for progressives to fail to use the deep, hypocritical conflicts that mar the right to try to split the movement at its weakest links. The right cannot reply in kind because progressives are less internally conflicted; although liberals too range from devout to atheist they share a secular sense of social tolerance, concur that the gospels are economically progressive, and agree that organisms have evolved over deep time.

In educational terms mainstream press coverage of the issue would be a public service giving the public the information it needs to decide whether or not current conservatism is fatally disingenuous. In a Washington Post column liberal Catholic E. J. Dionne Jr. got things rolling by pointing out that the Rand whose books so many Christian conservatives treat as scripture was a flaming atheist.

It’s a start.

And why are progressives not regularly putting forward the fast growing body of technical research proving that it is the most secular, liberal democracies that are enjoying the overall best socioeconomic circumstances in history, including lower rates of homicide, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, STD infections, abortion, teen pregnancy, mental illness, illicit drug use, and so on compared to the more libertarian USA, and superior levels of economic security, upward mobility and education?

And finally, if you don’t like socialism and communism stop blaming atheists and other secularists for concocting egalitarian collectivism backed by fear of death. It got its start long ago in the Good Book.

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He wrote this article for

Image: "Last Supper" by Bohdan Piasecki (1998).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Richard McBrien on the Church as the People of God

Theologian, priest, and National Catholic Reporter columnist Richard McBrien is currently publishing a series of articles highlighting and exploring the "major ecclesiological themes or principles" proclaimed at the Second Vatican Council. McBrien embarked on this endeavor in response to what he and many other Catholics see as the ignoring and even dismantling by the church's clerical leadership of the reforms achieved at the Council .

"This dismantling effort is revealed," writes McBrien, "in the changing of the texts of the Mass and the other sacraments (often referred to as the 'reform of the reform') beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, and in the appointment of bishops deemed unquestionably loyal to the Holy See, especially on issues such as contraception, the ordination of women, and obligatory clerical celibacy."

Following is the second installment of Mc'Brien's series on Vatican II, first published in the NCR on July 25, 2011, and focused on the Vatican II theme of the Church as the People of God. (Note: To read the entire series, click here.)


Vatican II Themes: The People of God

By Richard McBrien

National Catholic Reporter
July 25, 2011

Who or what is the church? It is first and foremost people. It is also an institution. But it is primarily a community. The church is us.

A major ecclesiological principle adopted by the Second Vatican Council is embodied in its teaching that the church is the whole People of God.

In other words, the church is not only the hierarchy, the clergy, and/or members of religious communities. It is the whole community of the baptized.

And that community is marked by a rich diversity of gender, class, education, social status, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and culture. It includes saints and sinners alike.

One of the council's most important affirmations, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, known by its Latin title as Lumen gentium, declared that charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, are available to all the faithful, "of every rank" (n. 12).

We find the People-of-God principle realized, although with varying degrees of success, in parish councils, in base communities, in the multiplication of ministries, and particularly in ministries associated with the liturgy, education and social justice.

The church that has entered the 21st century and the Third Christian Millennium is a church in which an increasing number of its members, laywomen and laymen alike, are ministerially involved.

One does not need any scientific surveys to verify what is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, namely, that the great majority of parish ministers today are women, and this is likely to remain so into the indefinite future.

At the same time, the alienation of many Catholic women from the official church remains one of its most serious pastoral challenges. The highly publicized failure of the U.S. Catholic bishops more than a decade ago to produce an acceptable pastoral letter on women, after nine years of effort, only underscored the problem.

More recently, Bishop William Morris of the Australian diocese of Toowoomba was removed from the leadership of his diocese because he had suggested in an earlier pastoral letter that, in light of the severity of the vocations crisis, the church would have to be "much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated." These options included the ordination of women to the priesthood.

According to Morris, the letter from Pope Benedict XVI cited this very point as the principal grounds for his removal. The pope declared that women's ordination was now a closed issue because Pope John Paul II had definitively, that is, infallibly, pronounced on the subject in his 1994 statement Ordinatio sacerdotalis ("Priestly ordination"). Therein, John Paul II insisted that the Church was not authorized to ordain women as priests.

We are now in a kind of patchwork stage, having changed Mass schedules to permit fewer priests to celebrate more Masses on a given weekend, while closing or merging parishes.

Many Catholics worry about the lowering of standards in seminaries, the ignoring of the results of psychological testing (if there is any) or the reports of pastoral supervisors, many of whom are women. These reports concern the pastoral performance and personal qualities of candidates for the priesthood.

Importing priests from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe is not the answer. On the contrary, it sometimes generates new problems to be added to the old.

If the People of God are to be effectively served in the coming decades, the church will have to be "much more open," as Morris suggested, to ordaining married men to the priesthood, welcoming back resigned priests to active ministry, and ordaining women, married or single.

Social scientists like the late Dean Hoge of The Catholic University of America and the late Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin have in the past strongly recommended such changes, insisting that they would end the current vocations shortage in the Catholic church.

Others, however, seem convinced that the problem will somehow go away through prayer and fasting, or by purging seminaries of dissident theologians and homosexuals, or by more inventive techniques of making personal contact with prospective candidates for the priesthood.

More than 20 years ago, Eugene Kennedy, the psychologist and prolific writer, addressed this topic in a memorable article in America magazine titled, "The Problem with No Name." He wrote: ". . . the male-bonded culture of clerical life is in ruins because it is a vestige of the great days of privilege, not because people lack interest in ministry" (4/23/88).

Calling the church the People of God, as the council did, means that we all have responsibility for its life and mission, especially at a time when its leadership sometimes functions as an obstacle rather than a facilitator.

© 2011 Richard P. McBrien. All rights reserved. Fr. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

See also the previous PCV posts:
The Consensus of the Faithful as the Voice of the Infallible Church
Acclaimed Church Historian Marvin O'Connell to Discuss Cardinal Newman
"All Voices Must Be Heard": A Response to Archbishop Nienstedt
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Quote of the Day

Not long after the Irish government's report on the [clergy sex abuse crisis in the] Cloyne diocese smashed into the public eye, the Irish Prime Minister delivered an eloquent speech before the Irish Parliament in which he decried "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."

. . . Psychologists say when you assault a narcissist's inflated ego, you'll be belittled, mocked, even laughed at. The narcissist will sneer: Who are you to criticize the "superior" individual? Who are you to criticize the "powerful" one? Who are you to criticize the church?

From country to country we've seen a constant devaluation of the accusers. For the most part, official reactions have been wholly self-referential. Like a true narcissist, the church reacts as the offended party, and questions the truth of every statement. If you muddle through the weeds of some depositions you'll find a lot of "gaslighting" – denials, presenting of false information – all aimed at destroying the accusers' perceptions of reality. Both hypersensitive and incapable of empathy, the narcissist only argues his private truth.

Yes, it is enough to drive you crazy. Aren't professional ministers supposed to be "other directed"? What is "church" about? I keep thinking they're doing things in alphabetical order, and "golf" comes before "Gospel."

The fact is, the Vatican is looking more and more like the dysfunctional, disconnected, elitist and, yes, narcissistic operation the Prime Minister says it is.

– Phyllis Zagano
"Ireland, the Vatican and Clerical Narcissism"
National Catholic Reporter
August 3, 2011

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quote of the Day

. . . [T]he current critical reaction to the Vatican in places like deeply Catholic Ireland [may well be] a manifestation of a longstanding and very powerful desire among faithful Catholics to see the papacy finally do what it’s meant to do, according to the gospels. And that’s to serve. Not to dominate. Not to rule. Not to issue orders and condemnations.

To serve. To serve as Jesus served. To serve the unity of the body of Christ with a papacy embodying the ideal of service that Jesus bequeathed as the supreme ideal for those who seek to exercise leadership in the Christian community: to be the servus servorum Christi.

Maybe the “sharks” circling in the water aren’t smelling blood. And maybe they’re not sharks at all. Maybe they’re actually faithful Catholics who are delighted to see the imperial structures of a papacy modeled more on the values of Caesar than those of Christ crumbling before our eyes.

Crumbling because it has behaved in imperial ways rather than embodying Christ’s ideal of service. . . .

Recommended Off-site Link:
Vatican II Themes: The Church as Servant – Richard McBrien (National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2011).
Bishop Gumbleton: A Priesthood Set Apart and Above Others is Not the Way of Jesus
The Wild Reed (September 28, 2009).

Image: Ford Madox Brown.