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    • To my Republican Friends July 6, 2020
      You voted for Trump even though you didn't like him. Doubted his character. Questioned his fitness for the job. Yet, your aversion to Hillary was even greater The post To my Republican Friends first appeared on Spirit of a Liberal.
      Obie Holmen
    • Wormwood and Gall a Midwest Book Award Finalist May 4, 2020
      The Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MIPA) recently named Wormwood and Gall as one of three finalists for a Midwest Book Award in the Religion/Philosophy category. The awards program, which is organized by MIPA, recognizes quality in independent publishing in the Midwest. The post Wormwood and Gall a Midwest Book Award Finalist first appeared on S […]
      Obie Holmen
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    • For Rita Coolidge, Love Is Everywhere January 25, 2023
      A mid-week “music night” this evening at The Wild Reed, just to mix things up a bit!It’s Rita Coolidge and Keb’ Mo’ with “Walking on Water,” one of a number of standout tracks from Rita’s sublime 2018 album Safe In the Arms of Time.I came across this album shortly before the pandemic while perusing the racks of CDs at Cheapo Discs in Blaine, MN, something I […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Michael J. Bayly)
    • Photo of the Day January 20, 2023
      See also the previous Wild Reed posts:• Wintering• Brigit Anna McNeill on “Winter’s Way”• Brigit Anna McNeill on Hearing the Wild and Natural Call to Go Inwards• Winter Beauty• Winter Light• After Record-Breaking Snowfall, a Walk Through the Neighborhood• Saaxiib Qurux Badan – January 4, 2023• Photo of the Day – December 23, 2022• Winter . . . Within and Bey […]
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    • the way ahead March 23, 2013
      My current blog is called the way ahead.
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    • A saint for the millenials: Carlo Acutis beatified today in Assisi. October 10, 2020
       A saint for the millenials: the young Italian teen, Carlo Acutis, who died in 2006 of galloping Leukemia, will be beatified today in Assisi by Pope Francis (last step before being officially declared a saint). Carlo came from a luke warm Catholic family, but at the age of 7, when he received his first 'Holy Communion', he displayed an astonishing […]
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    • Ronan Park and Jack Vidgen: The Travails of Gay Pop Stars October 28, 2019
      (Jack Vidgen)Quite by accident, through a comment from a performance arts colleague of mine, I stumbled across the recent bios of two boy teen singing sensations, both of whom made a big splash worldwide 8 years ago. The first, Jack Vidgen, won Australia's Got Talent Contest in 2011 at the age of 14, primarily for his powerful renditions of Whitney Hust […]
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    • I Can't Explain January 27, 2023
      I like this 1964 song written by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who, which came out when I was 13 and still fairly optimistic about life :)
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A Renewed Opportunity of Hope and Reconciliation

File photo of Pope Benedict XVI leaving at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the VaticanIn times of disappointment or frustration, my mother has always supplied a poignant saying that has helped me to make sense of challenging situations, “If you continue using the same method, expect the same outcome. If you want to see a different result, try something new.” Keeping this in mind, I can begin taking the necessary steps to move forward from whatever the given quandary may be.

The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s (now referred to as the “Pope Emeritus”) resignation has left the church, as well as unaffiliated observers around the world, reeling in shock and confusion. For the first time in 600 years, a pope has renounced the Petrine ministry. The prospects of an uncertain ecclesiastical future have now given cause for many to hold their breath, in anticipation of what could be expected from the next Bishop of Rome.

Undeniably, anyone, regardless of their beliefs, or lack thereof, can acknowledge that today the Catholic Church is enduring a systemic crisis of epic proportions. In the West, particularly throughout Europe, the volume of individuals who identify themselves as practicing Catholics decreases year after year. Any sense of credibility or spiritual integrity that the prelates of the church possessed in the past has been eroded in the wake of the worldwide sexual-abuse scandal. The lack of a definitive response to this moral pandemic has convinced many that the members of the hierarchy are not serious about solving this pervasive affliction. The fact that numerous men in positions of ecclesial prestige have merely offered empty apologies, and the window-dressing of vague guidelines aimed at preventing abuse, cements this sentiment among the general public. How can a dilemma of this magnitude ever truly be repaired if justice and accountability have not been the guiding catalysts in confronting this crisis?

Conventional wisdom has sought to designate the southern hemisphere as being the future of global Catholicism. There, an intense, vibrant expression of the faith is said to be a guaranteed key in winning further adherents to the church. Yet, a mistake is made when rigidly applying this analysis. It is commonly assumed that the scourge of pedophilic abuse is not an issue in countries of the global south. A prominent cardinal of the Roman Curia, hailing from Ghana, recently declared as much to the media, stating that this phenomenon is so rampant in the Western world because of cultural variations between the northern and southern hemispheres. He further implied that this sociological barrier existed as a result of the tolerance of homosexuality throughout most of the northern hemisphere, compared to its condemnation in countries of the southern hemisphere. Although it is not as pronounced or notable, cases of minors being sexually abused by clerics have, indeed, been documented in this region of the world.

In fact, in many countries, there is a sexual crisis of another sort. In this occasion the problem is not necessarily one of abuse. Throughout the African continent, where the numbers of entrees to seminaries constantly abounds, the vow of celibacy taken by those entering the priesthood is not always observed to the letter of the law. The custom of consciously disregarding this oath has been established by countless priests. It is not unusual for mistresses, and in numerous cases, even entire families (including multiple female partners and children) to clandestinely live with the pastor of a parish. Failing to give open acknowledgement to such arrangements does not erase their existence from the minds of most parishioners, many of whom privately condone the practice.  In the context of the African church, the notion of priestly celibacy is regarded as an irritating European aberration. In the prevailing culture, a man is expected to fall in love with a woman, to marry, and to have children — not doing so is viewed as abnormal. These conditions have become the norm throughout large portions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Thus, on all geographical frontiers, questions of sexuality threaten to deteriorate the binding tapestry of faith and tradition that has composed the Catholic Church for centuries.

It seems that the former pontiff may have realized the implications all of these realities held for the church in the twenty-first century. Noticing subliminal hints of this line of reasoning in Benedict’s statement of resignation could prove helpful in establishing the criteria by which the future pope will be elected. Upon renouncing the papacy, the pope stated, “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

This was seen as an expression on the part of the Pope Emeritus that not only were the effects of his age physically impacting his daily routine, but also, that his escalating frailty prevented him from responding comprehensively, and genuinely, to the pressing questions of the times we now live in. Longtime observers of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological temperament could very well have predicted this outcome from the first day of his election as pope. Although in his youth he did attend the Second Vatican Council, and was fairly progressive-minded in its wake, Ratzinger would eventually succumb to a crippling attitude of fear. As innovations following the historic assembly were implemented on a fairly rapid scale, Ratzinger began to view these changes as being rash and excessive. Criticizing new trends of liturgical practice and theological nuance, he began to complain that the Council’s message had been interpreted far too liberally. Soon, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would become the institutional church’s chief proponent for nostalgically looking to a bygone era of the past. In this world, the notions of hierarchy, doctrine, and obedience formed the basis of the Catholic faith, instead of the values of episcopal collegiality, primacy of the individual conscience, and theological objectivity that Vatican II would espouse.

Still, a question begs to be asked: How can the problems of the 21st Century be solved with 18th Century solutions?

In a candid conversation with my parish priest, I once asked him his thoughts on what he felt Jesus of Nazareth would have to say if He were living and breathing in the flesh, in today’s world. His reply was to quote one of Jesus’ most comforting and repeated exhortations in the Gospels, “Be not afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) This summons to courage was utilized so often by the late, Blessed John Paul II that it is often described as the unofficial motto of his pontificate.

This same hopeful premise was also the underlying theme in most of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. When it was finally completed, the entire trajectory and driving purpose of this monumental gathering was intended to impel the Catholic Church to have a greater, more intense dialogue with the modern world. Rather than seeing the church as diametrically opposed to all of the implications that modernity had to offer, Vatican II painted the church as an entity that was in the world, and not removed from it. In the words of Blessed John XXIII, who convened the Council, but would not live to see its completion, “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

Undoubtedly, the failure on the part of the hierarchy to confront the global, human questions that the “signs of the times” have engendered is the biggest mistake the institutional church has made in the fifty years that have passed since the conclusion of Vatican II.

Earlier today, the College of Cardinals entered, and were subsequently locked within, the Sistine Chapel to elect Benedict XVI’s successor. This year, the events leading up to, and taking place during the Conclave have all occurred under the auspices of the liturgical season of Lent — traditionally observed as a time of conversion and repentance. Conventionally, repentance is usually understood as being contrite and remorseful for one’s sins. However, the biblical calls , to “repent” or “convert”, as Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist urged their followers to do, mean not to simply be sorry for one’s failings, but also, to turn towards God, and to adopt a new mode of being. This should make it all the more clear to the cardinals gathered in Rome that the Conclave of 2013 should not be business as usual.

My mother’s always-appropriate expression happens to paraphrase a similar message that can be found echoing from the mouth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, “Neither is new wine, put into old wineskins, otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17) In today’s paradigm, the wine described can symbolically be identified with the Catholic faith. The enlightening truth of the Gospel, (namely, God’s self-communication of love to us in the person of Christ) and the enduring traditions of the church must always be maintained. But new approaches (new “wineskins”) and insights must be used in transmitting the faith, allowing it to stay fresh and relevant for coming generations.

May we all pray that the College of Cardinals elects a pope who does not simply preserve the theological and bureaucratic status quo, that has been the norm in the Vatican for centuries, but instead realizes that whoever the next pope will be, he will have as his mission the task of emulating and personifying the Christ of the Gospels — engaging all members of the human family in a spirit of love, justice, and peace.

Now, more than ever, the Spirit of God must prevail, instead of the finite whims of fallible men. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church has been universally placed under scrutiny. The church’s future hangs in the balance. Will it continue to remain a viable spiritual path, or is it destined to gradually be reduced to a reactionary cult?

Veni Creator Spiritus!

Reform Movement Widens Even More: German Priests’ Group Makes Statement of Support for Theologians’ Reform Petition

As a continuation of Terry Weldon’s excellent series of postings on the recent petition for reform issued by a significant number of Catholic theologians in Germany, I’d like to offer a summary of an article that appeared several days ago in the Badische Zeitung newspaper.  The article, by Jens Schmitz, notes that a group of priests in the diocese of Freiburg, Germany, are calling for open dialogue in the German Catholic church following the theologians’ reform petition, which they welcome as a valuable initiative.  As the Facebook page of the group Kirche Braucht Veränderung notes yesterday, the endorsement of the theologians’ reform petition by a group of German Catholic priests is yet another sign that the reform movement represented by the reform petition is widening. Continue reading

The Newman Wars: Papal Visit to England and Battle over Newman’s Legacy

As Benedict’s visit to England nears, it’s fascinating to watch the drawing of battle lines among Catholic commentators on the visit, re: the legacy of John Henry Newman. Better thinkers and more astute bloggers than I am are already commenting on this topic, including James Martin at America‘s “In All Things” blog, John Cornwell in London’s Financial Times, Colleen Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, Michael Bayly at Wild Reed, and Andrew Sullivan at his Daily Dish site. And then there are Ann Widdecombe at the Telegraph and Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter. Continue reading

A Signpost to the Future: Bishop Kevin Dowling on Need for Servant Leadership in Catholic Church

Bishop Kevin Dowling

At Bilgrimage, I just posted about the serious problems confronting the Catholic church today, as it tries to pursue its most fundamental mission of all—being a sacramental sign of God’s salvific love in the world.  And so where do we find signposts to a future different than the dismal one to which the dismal pastoral leadership of the church at present seems to point us?

I find hope in an address Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, gave to a lay group on 1 June.  Though Bishop Dowling addressed the group, which had asked him to comment on the “current state of the church,” off the record, a reporter was present and information about Dowling’s theological analysis hit the news. Continue reading

John Allen on Affirmative Orthodoxy and Jim Martin on Price of Restorationism: Two Faces of Benedict

I find it instructive to read Fr. Jim Martin’s fine statement about Pope Benedict’s recent remark to reporters that the abuse of children by Catholic clerics is “truly terrifying,” side by side with John Allen’s declaration that Benedict’s address at the Cultural Center of Belém in Lisbon was a “tour de force” for what Allen calls “affirmative orthodoxy.”

Allen finds Benedict seeking to strike an “optimistic” note about the church’s encounter with contemporary culture.  He notes that Benedict’s address stresses the need for dialogue between the church and secularism; the need to move towards positive appraisal of various cultures and worldviews with the recognition that they can enrich the church; and the need to retrieve Vatican II’s positive appraisal of the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Continue reading

Could genuine reform in the future be coming from the most unexpected of places?

As I was surfing the net yesterday, I—along with everyone else who saw the headline—was completely floored when I glimpsed this headline on the National Catholic Reporter’s blog, “Schönborn attacks Sodano, urges reform”

Of course to anyone who is a close follower of internal Catholic affairs it should be no surprise that—on initial inspection—the reputation of Cardinal Schönborn and the radical concept of ecclesial reform seem to be practically mutually exclusive.

Yet, once the article–obtained from the UK’s Catholic Tablet weekly is inspected one can see what all the hubub has been about.

In it, Cardinal Schönborn delivered a scathing criticism of the current dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano (who on Easter Sunday notably dismissed the ever gathering storm of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal overtaking Europe as “petty gossip”). He further rebuked him by saying that his comments had “deeply wronged” the victims of sexual-abuse committed at the hand of clerics and that the Church was “urgently in need of reform.”  Throughout the fallout of this most recent crisis which has plagued the Catholic Church, Cardinal Schönborn has been one of the foremost heralds among its prelates in denouncing these heinous acts and thereby demanding true and genuine reform of the Church. During Holy Week he even made it a point to publicly celebrate a Mass of Penance for all those victimized by depraved clerics and once more used the opportunity to denounce both the system and the environment that gave rise to these horrible acts.

 However, the comments that caught the most media attention were found later on in the piece. In response to a question probing the Church’s stance on homosexual individuals the Cardinal stated that,

“We should give more consideration to the quality of homosexual relationships…A stable relationship is certainly better than if someone chooses to be promiscuous.”

And thus, the shockwave of curiosity and bewilderment was ignited throughout the blogosphere and the world at large.

But what exactly do the Cardinal’s comments mean? He didn’t necessarily condone homosexuality or homosexual relationships nor did he condemn them.

Heretofore, the Archbishop of Vienna has always been characterized in glowing terms (especially among more conservative-minded members of the Church) as having long been Joseph Ratzinger’s most astute protegé during his tenure at Regensburg University in Germany. He has been championed in many circles as the Catholic Church’s best hope to continue the late Pope John Paul II’s legacy of “evangelical Catholicism” (as John Allen would describe it) of positively promoting all of the Church’s teachings—even controversial ones—not so much as prohibitions on humanity, but rather as conscious assents to the will of God and the alleged dictates of the Gospels.

Usually he has been consistent with this approach, but there are a few notable exceptions that might give a bit more insightful perspective into the Cardinal’s most recent comments that have sparked so much astonishment—and even enthusiasm—among many.

In 2005 Cardinal Schönborn wrote an article for the New York Times in which he stated,

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

This comment sparked criticism because the Cardinal seemed to be undermining the foundational premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, he would continue to insist in the following months that he was not at all discounting the theory, but instead emphasizing that God did in fact have an active role to play in the process. In effect, he was promoting a middle of the road approach to the vigorous debate between Creationists and proponents of evolution—basically saying that scientifically, evolution is certainly legitimate as a theory for explaining the origin of the human species in the natural world, and yet, the role of God ultimately guiding the process cannot be forgotten either. It must be remembered that this has always been the Church’s official position regarding the legitimacy of the theory of evolution in explaining the origin of mankind on the planet Earth.

Some time later in 2006 the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Vienna, Austria decided to plan a Valentine’s Day blessing for all couples who were in love. Shortfly following the ceremonies it was reported that homosexual couples had even presented themselves to be blessed and no difficulties were encountered. In a manner vaguely similar to today’s most recent headlines concerning the Cardinal, it was widely reported that Cardinal Schönborn never barred such couples from coming forward to participate in the blessings. Later, a “clarification” was issued which stated that even “non-married” persons who felt so strongly in love—even though they may not have been engaged or in a relational status officially recognized by the Church—were able to take part in the blessing in an “individual” manner but not together as a couple.

The available facts don’t seem to be numerous enough to be able to verify whether this was indeed the case or whether homosexual individuals in committed, loving relationships did present themselves for the blessing and if anything was done to prohibit them from doing so. Neither has Cardinal Schönborn himself ever spoken concretely on this topic to date to put to doubt any of these speculations.

If observed carefully, one can almost sense a pattern in the approach that the Archbishop of Vienna has consistently taken on these various issues. Despite being mentored and honed in numerous ways by the present Pope, Christoph Schönborn seems to be quite a different man from Joseph Ratzinger.

Throughout his academic and theological career—at least following his change from liberal to conservative on the theological spectrum in the wake of changes implemented following the Second Vatican Council—Joseph Ratzinger has always responded the same way when confronted with controversial issues. He simply issues the Catholic Church’s official Magisterial proclamations and ends discussion of the topic. A notable example of this was when during his 2009 visit to Africa he was asked a question about the Catholic Church’s stance on the status of couples where one partner has been infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. Much debate has been made about this issue because of the traditional prohibition against birth control by the Magisterium because it “eliminates the possibility of new life”, and some thought that the HIV phenomenon might provide an exception to re-examine this teaching in light of new theological and scientific innovations. Yet, Pope Benedict XVI was unwavering on this matter saying that condoms only contributed to the problem. We only need to examine history to see what kind of reaction that declaration was met with.

Whether it has been divorced or re-married couples, the question of abortion, the morality and dignity of homosexual persons and their relationships, or the status and salvific significance of other religions in relation to Christianity; Joseph Ratzinger has really never shown any instances of being theologically objective or sociologically receptive for the sake of beginning dialogue and discussion on any of these pressing issues. Instead, it seems that he has taken the opposite direction in some cases and reversed barriers that were eliminated during the papacy of the late John Paul II (most notably, extending an invitation to disenfranchised Anglicans who were upset with the body’s stance on homosexuality and the ordination of women to join the Catholic Church and essentially form their own “rite” within Catholicism).

Cardinal Schönborn by contrast seems to always deal with issues in a theologically grounded yet pragmatic manner. Instead of simply condemning the phenomenon of homosexuality or urging all homosexuals to a life of celibacy—as is the current Magisterial position of the Church—he leaves the question open and up to the individual. The most important thing to him is the quality of the relationship. Granted, he hasn’t endorsed homosexual relationships outright, but he does talk about the possibility of there being a positive aspect present within them—which is something we usually never here from the prelates of the Church these days.

This particular approach of the Cardinal’s is notably similar to the venerable Fr. Charles Curran’s—who was one of the first theologians to attempt to genuinely tackle the issue of the question of homosexuality in a positive and reasoned context. Fr. Curran’s conclusion was that because of the presence of sin in the world certain subjective tendencies could not be avoided. Although they were objectively wrong they were not subjectively sinful. Thus meaning, although homosexual relationships were technically wrong because they were not open to “procreation” they may not necessarily be subjectively sinful for the individuals involved, taking into consideration the solidification of the person’s orientation and the quality of the relationship that they were in. Ultimately, even if it might technically be wrong, if the relationship was sufficiently supporting the two individuals in terms of moral and emotional stability and integrity, it could in fact end up being a very good thing morally.

I personally don’t necessarily agree with this approach. To me it doesn’t go far enough, and I agree much more with the distinguished Fr. John McNeill who sees a homosexual orientation as simply being a “gift” from God which is morally “neutral” or equivalent when compared to loving, heterosexual relationships. Yet, currently, the Church’s teaching on sexuality is mired in the archaic centrality of procreation as always being the ultimate goal and pinnacle of sexual intercourse. So, this limited understanding prevents the prelates from seeing homosexuality in any other context aside from its relation to procreation.

Still, much as Fr. Curran’s observations were a landmark in opening the door to the discussion of homosexuality in the context of theology, so it seems that Cardinal Schönborn’s comments could be in the wider public sphere of the Catholic Church. Although the approach of affirming homosexual relationships as “essentially imperfect” isn’t really desireable, it must be remembered that as has been said so often, the Catholic Church thinks in terms of centuries not years. Also, when has homosexuality ever been mentioned so positively by any prelate in recent memory since Cardinal Martini of Milan was considered a papbile?

If the Church must be reformed by baby steps I think Cardinal Schönborn might be the perfect candidate to carry out the job if it were the will of God that he someday be elected as the Bishop of Rome. As much as Pope Benedict makes of the importance of integrating faith and reason the Archbishop of Vienna really seems to actually but that integration into action. Only time will tell if God truly intends to use this compassionate conservative to help reform and renew His Church so that it might more fully reflect the love and compassion of the Christ of the Gospels. Whether Cardinal Schönborn’s vision is meant to be shaped into a tangible reality or not remains to be seen. Still, his approach, compassion, and understanding continue to be most welcome!

Mary Daly and the Invitation to Explore Wild Ideas about Inclusivity: A Memorial Reflection by Regina Heater

The following memorial of theologian Mary Daly, who died 3 January, is from Regina Heater, a theologian and writer who maintains the Sacredfisher blog and is a reader of Open Tabernacle.

In January 1993, as a Christian Education major at a United Methodist college, I journeyed to Nashville, TN to meet staff members from several General Boards of the United Methodist Church, including editors of church publications and curriculum. The church had just published its latest version of The Book of Worship, a guide to liturgical celebration in the church, from Sunday liturgy to weddings, funerals and Love Feasts. This revised Book of Worship encompassed changes to liturgy that included a more inclusive approach to language about God, changes that went hand-in-hand with the publication of the NRSV translation of the Bible in 1989. The NRSV specifically counted as an improvement over the RSV changes “making it clear where the original texts intend to include all humans, male and female, and where they intend to refer only to the male or female gender.” Continue reading

What is the Pope’s Idea of Reform?

Throughout the course of the pontificate of Benedict XVI the Pope has commented on several occasions of incidents of reform and renewal that have occurred within the universal Church; most notably and succinctly, during his Weekly Wednesday General Audiences. In numerous cases, the Holy Father has tied the cause of reform and renewal to certain trends that occurred within the Church in the contexts of monastic and religious life, thus making religious orders a vehicle in some sense  for enacting and implementing new and vibrant forms of living out the Catholic faith.

Yet, as always, Benedict XVI has a very unique idea of what constitutes this renewal and how it is carried out.

On November 11, 2009 the Pope made The Cluniac Reform the topic of reflection for that Wednesday’s Audience. The Holy Father describes eloquently the great French monastery and how it contributed positively not only to the local monastic community but also introduced sentiments and trends that proved beneficial for the entire universal Church. Near the end of the Pope’s reflections, Benedict makes it a point to note that,

“Cluny’s success was assured primarily not only by the lofty spirituality cultivated there but also by several other conditions that ensured its development. In comparison with what had happened until then, the Monastery of Cluny and the communities dependent upon it were recognized as exempt from the jurisdiction of the local Bishops and were directly subject to that of the Roman Pontiff. This meant that Cluny had a special bond with the See of Peter and, precisely because of the protection and encouragement of the Pontiffs the ideals of purity and fidelity proposed by the Cluniac Reform spread rapidly.”

So, in his opinion, the Cluniac example of reform and renewal was not only successful on account of its own unique spiritual and theological integrity; it was special, in the fact that it was directly subject to the Bishop of Rome, thus insuring that “purity” and “fidelity” prevailed throughout the movement.

I wonder if in Benedict XVI’s mind, the Cluniac reform would have been as influential as it was had it been free of this subtle form of Roman control?’

On another occasion, during the General Audience of October 7, 2009 Pope Benedict speaks of St. John Leonardi, one of the towering figures of the Counter Reformation. He paints John as a man who was deeply driven to correcting secular abuses which had crept into the Church and — because of his own personal background in the field of medicine– John saw it as his mission to heal areas of the Church which had become diseased and no longer resembled Christ. The Pope goes on to quote John as declaring,

“…the renewal of the Church must be brought about in her leaders and in their subordinates, both above and below. It must be started by those in charge and extended to their subjects…”

Yet, at the conclusion of his Audience, Pope Benedict sums up St. John Leonardi’s example thusly,

“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi’s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (cf. Mt 13: 30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field”, the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation. And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.” Once again, it seems clear that Pope Benedict’s concept of reform is conditional. As long as one does not publicly or fundamentally disagree with the Pope, as the Protestant Reformers did, then their actions can be considered renewing and positively reforming the universal Church.

In the Holy Father’s most recent General Audiences of 2010 he has once again reflected on the cause of “reform and renewal” citing the Franciscan and Dominican Orders as important and visible agents in this initiative. But when we sit back and example these specific Orders, what is the common denominator that unites these monastic communities to the others that the Pope has described in his previous reflections? Ultimately, either by of their own choosing or of a sense of implied necessity, St. Dominic and St. Francis’ concepts of religious life were critiqued and given approval by the Pope. To Benedict, this is the difference between John Leonardi, Francis, and Dominic and their Protestant counterparts–Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley. Recognizing the Pope’s authority as a given is always a necessity when carrying out any sort of reform that is beneficial to the life of the universal Church.

Conveniently, the Holy Father chooses to omit numerous instances of individuals throughout the Church’s history who were part of monastic communities who openly opposed the Pope on several different occasions.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the great medieval Doctors of the Church, wrote to then Pope Eugenius III–in his De Consideratione— and admonished him; explaining to him that the papacy could only be an instrument of service to the Church, uniting all of its members in charity, rather than lording power and certain prerogatives over some in an authoritarian manner; as had become the rule du jour in the Middle Ages.

St. Catherine of Sienna, another Doctor of the Church, is most notably known for her extremely vocal and public critiques of then Pope Gregory XI–one of the Bishops of Rome who lived in exile in Avignon, France during the Great Western Schism of the fourteenth century in which two different popes were recognized, one in Avignon and one in Rome–which ultimately convinced him to return and resume his rightful position in the ancient See of Peter. St. Catherine also urged Pope Gregory in her letters to reform the clergy–which was notoriously corrupt– and also the way that the Papal States were administered.

One final example is not necessarily connected with monastic life per se, but nonetheless, is still of significant relevance. In the Acts of the Apostles a glimpse into the life of the early first century Church is provided when a dispute is described that ultimately causes a synod (traditionally characterized as the universal Church’s first “Council”) to be convened in Jerusalem to reach consensus and clarification on the issue. The matter at hand was the question of Gentile converts to Christianity and whether they would have to first be circumcised–thereby becoming Jews–in order to be considered followers of Christ. In these early days of Christianity, the apostles and disciples of Jesus still had not clearly distinguished themselves as an entity or movement separate from Judaism. They simply saw themselves as proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah that the Jewish people had yearned so long for. Still Peter, John, Paul and most of Jesus’ followers remained observant Jews and saw nothing contradictory in proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah while continuing to worship in the Temple of Jerusalem as well as keeping the laws of Moses.

During the Council of Jerusalem all of these facts were discussed vigorously. Peter, the de facto leader of the Church (usually described in Catholic tradition as the first “pope” even though the office in a full sense had not yet been developed), an ardent practitioner of Judaism, felt that Jesus had intended the Gospel only to be preached to the people of Israel–as God’s unique chosen progeny. Paul on the other hand disagreed deeply and chided Peter openly, saying to him,

“If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14) 

It was this public rebuke of Peter by Paul that ultimately changed his mind and persuaded him at the Council to render this verdict,

“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe, And God Who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11)

Does this then suggest that even the Pope can be persuaded to have a change of heart on certain issues–even ones of an extremely substantive and personal nature that have to deal with the very core of who we are as human beings–and see things in a new light when enlightened by his brothers?

Of course, Pope Benedict XVI would most likely, probably not see things this way. But the fact remains that throughout the Church’s history numerous saints have spoken out against certain practices and tenets sanctioned by the Pope and other prelates within the Church. It seems that comprehensive reforms only moved forward after points of contention were made to the Bishop of Rome and the necessity of a new way of approaching things was embraced. Thus, loyal dissent–especially in certain monastic contexts–has been a long-held reality of the Church.

But of course, Benedict XVI does not and probably never will see things this way. The ongoing investigation of women religious communities here in the United States proves this. The Vatican sees this women a threat because they think for themselves and have interpreted certain matters in a new, enlightened, forward thinking manner. Instead of seeing this as the Spirit possibly moving in the midst of their communities; the Pope, Cardinal Rode, and other leaders of the Church see this as a potential threat, because these women religious have dared to speak out, in some cases, against some of the Pope’s proclamations and have advocated alternative ways of interpreting the Gospel in light of today’s times. Unfortunately, this Pope is not listening as Pope Gregory did to St. Catherine of Siena.

Pope Benedict would rather listen to those who tell him what he wants to hear, like zealous adherents of Opus Dei. If anything fits Benedict’s criteria for true “reform and renewal” it would be these group within the Church. The fact that it is an autonomous entity, a “personal prelature” ,directly under the jurisdiction of the Pope should be the telling point. Reform to Benedict is only real unless unwavering fidelity to the Roman Magisterium in all circumstances, particularly the Pope, is met.

So, under an oppresive climate such as this how will true and genuine reform endure? The answer might be surprising.

John Allen Jr; Vatican analyst and esteemed journalist for the National Catholic Reporter makes this prediction for progressive-thinking Catholics in his latest work “The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (which was a long-awaited Christmas present :)),

 “…In a Catholicism shaped by the politics of identity, many religious orders will rediscover precisely those elements that mark them as distinct–wearing habits, for example; engaging in more sustained periods of both individual and common prayer; and less immersion in secular pursuits. This option for a more high-tension style of religious life could in theory produce a revival in religious orders, at least in term of head counts.

On the other hand, any attentive observer of the contemporary Catholic scene also knows that many religious orders in the global North today have a center of gravity considerably to the left of diocesan bodies of priests, or of other Catholic institutions. The leaders of religious orders tend to favor collegial and participatory modes of government, and they often foster a greater liberty for theological innovation than many diocesan priests or lay employees of bishops might enjoy. For that reason, some religious orders may be fairly resistant to the momentum of evangelical Catholicism. If so, this option may create a high-tension model of religious life in another sense–in this case, tension not with the broader culture, but within the Church

Such an option may not be a prescription for larger numbers of vocations, but it could mean that institutions and parishes run by religious orders become the “harbors in the storm” for more liberal Catholics who feel increasingly uncomfortable in other Catholic venues. Liberal Catholics may seek out schools and parishes staffed by religious orders in greater numbers, and they may become more willing to provide financial and logistical support to their various works. Thus it’s possible that both “conservative” and “liberal” orders, and elements within these orders, may find the twenty-first century to be a boom period–the former in terms of vocations and energy, the latter as the refuge of choice for an increasingly beleaguered wing of the Church… “

                           p. 89-90

So it seems once again that genuine reform and renewal within the Church will once again stem from within the monastic setting. Instead of being interpreted as a global phenomenon, perhaps this is the “creative minority” that Pope Benedict alludes to as the future of Christianity?

Haiti, the Push for Theological Answers, and Liberation Theology’s Correction of Christian Necrophilia

Paula Cooey has published  a thought-provoking article at Religion Dispatches about the push for theological questions following the Haitian earthquakes.  As she notes, in the wake of massive tragedies like what has happened in Haiti, people begin to ask theological questions—theodicy questions.  Questions about where God is as millions of people suffer.

And people of faith sometimes respond to those questions with answers—with answers that are altogether too glib.  Answers that implicitly make God responsible for the massive suffering that causes us to question where God is, as people suffer . . . .  Job’s-comforter answers, which explain it all to us, when silence and solidarity with those who are suffering would be a far more adequate theological response than cheap, falsely explanatory answers. Continue reading