• RSS Queering the Church

    • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
  • RSS Spirit of a Liberal

    • 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 [[ This is a content summary only. Visit my website for full links, other content, and more! ]]
      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. [[ This is a content summary only. Visit my website for full links, other co […]
      Obie Holmen
  • RSS There Will be Bread

    • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
  • RSS The Wild Reed

    • Autumn Snowburst October 21, 2020
      Writes Paul Huttner of MPR News “Updraft” blog:Our unusually cold and strong October low-pressure storm dumped heavy snow on much of Minnesota as expected Tuesday.It also shattered some early-season snowfall records. Many spots around central and southern Minnesota will likely set all-time records for the heaviest, earliest snowfall of the snow season.One am […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Michael J. Bayly)
    • Meeting Truth October 14, 2020
      Writes author Colin Fleming:We fight for so much control in our lives, and we feel frightfully unmoored without it. We have voices in our cars directing us when to bang that right turn, devices on our wrists telling us how many steps we’ve taken. We deal in constant analytics, sometimes evaluating the quality of our own thoughts and words by how many likes t […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Michael J. Bayly)
  • RSS Bilgrimage

  • RSS Enlightened Catholicism

  • RSS Far From Rome

    • the way ahead March 23, 2013
      My current blog is called the way ahead.
      noreply@blogger.com (PrickliestPear)
  • RSS The Gay Mystic

    • 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 […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Unknown)
    • 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 […]
      noreply@blogger.com (Unknown)
  • RSS The Jesus Manifesto

    • Another World is Neccessary: Anarchism, Christianity and the Race from the White House July 30, 2008
      I’ll be presenting at the upcoming Jesus Radicals conference in Columbus, Ohio. My session (on the relationship between Church and State) will be on Friday afternoon. If you’re in the area, drop by. I’d love to meet some of the folks who frequent this site. Here’s the info: August 15-16, 2008 St. John’s Episcopal 1003 W Town Columbus, OH [...]ShareThis […]
      Mark Van Steenwyk
  • RSS John McNeill: Spiritual Transformations

  • RSS Perspective

    • The Pope and civil unions October 21, 2020
      In the news: the pope has called for secular governments to allow LGBTQ people to be in civil unions .... Pope Francis, in Shift for Church, Voices Support for Same-Sex Civil UnionsPope Francis, who since the beginning of his pontificate has taken a more tolerant tone toward homosexuality, appeared to break with the position of the Roman Catholic Church by s […]
      noreply@blogger.com (crystal)

NCR Editorial: Marrriage Equality in New York and Bishops’ Loss of Moral Credibility

National Catholic Reporter has just published a noteworthy editorial about the recent marriage equality legislation in New York.  The editorial is worthy of attention for a number of reasons. Continue reading

The Story of My Dissent

Originally posted at Talk to Action

This is the story of how and why I spoke out during a recent church service. When I arrived at Saturday evening mass with my family, I had no idea of the drama that my priest was about to stage — and my own unscripted role. While my outburst may have taken everyone, including me, by surprise, I was and I am faithfully dissenting from what my pastor, Father Michael Louis Gelfant, seems to want to do to my parish, my country and my faith.

His Saturday evening sermon of February 19, 2011 was an effort to introduce the forthcoming but already controversial, revised missal (a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year.) Unfortunately, he sidestepped its much-discussed shortcomings and the heavy-handed way in which it is being imposed upon the English-speaking Church. That alone was disappointing, but he also used the pulpit to disparage Vatican II, American Catholics, and to wage culture war. And that is why I needed to speak out.

My parish, St. Finbar’s in Bath Beach, Brooklyn had always been a beacon of tolerance and progressive Catholicism. There, we heard sermons about living good, reasonable lives, economic and social justice and the lessons of the likes of Dorothy Day. Except for the occasional visiting priest, we were never subjected to Catholic Right culture war sermons. Our late pastor Father James Mueller, a Vatican II, aggiornamento-minded priest once complained to me about the young, conservative priests who would rather rush to the front lines of the culture wars than to the duties of a parish priest such as counseling parishioners in trouble or visiting the sick and dying.

After our new pastor’s sermon on February 19, 2011, I was left to wonder if he is the kind of priest Father Mueller was concerned about. Father Gelfant used a reading of 1 Corinthians 3 as the point of departure for his sermon. The key phrase for him was “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” He then proceeded to use these words to attack the legacy of Vatican II, the current (non-Latin) Mass, and American Catholicism in general.

But before we discuss the reading and the related sermon which helps to explain my dissent, I want to report that I have learned a little more about Father Gelfant that helped me understand why his sermon may have taken the tone it did. During a visit to his Facebook page I learned that his “likes” include Fox News, the “Notre Dame Scandal” (the protest against the University’s invitation to president Obama to speak at commencement) and Tea Party Patriots.

The Tea Party Patriots! This group is about as far outside of any branch of Catholicism as can be. For example, this outfit featured as a speaker at its recent policy summit , the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaron Brook. Ayn Rand was, of course, a 20th century libertarian atheist philosopher, who railed against the Christian ethic of altruism, found religious faith incompatible with reason and disregarded prohibitions against monogamous marriage. Rand’s views are influential within the Tea Party movement.

Unsurprisingly, Tea Party Patriots organization is doing the dirty work for the infamous Koch Brothers, Charles and David, who are best known today as the major funders of the Tea Party movement.

Let’s briefly consider why a Catholic might raise an eyebrow about the Koch connection. They have employed a plethora of falsehoods in opposing universal health care legislation. Koch Industries was named one of the top ten air polluters in the United States by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute. The Koch brothers are fiercely anti-union and want to pull the social safety net out from under our most vulnerable brother and sister Americans.

Beyond that, the brothers Koch underwrite such organizations as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Ethics and Public Policy Center that seek to strip the Christian Social Gospel and Social Justice traditions out of both Catholicism and mainstream Protestant denominations. These reactionary projects cut deeply against the grain of one hundred and twenty years of Catholic teaching that began with Rerum Novarum.

Perhaps he was unaware of these facts. Many people are. Or perhaps he is nostalgic for more authoritarian times. Or both. But of course, I didn’t know about his surprising political tastes when I protested out loud during the service.

Father Gelfant took the time in his sermon to complain to us about how the altar and tabernacle were moved to the front from the back in the old Latin Mass. In those days, the priest would say Mass with his back to the congregation and do so in a language Jesus most likely rarely used (being a Jew, He spoke with His fellow Jews in either Hebrew or Aramaic and with non-Jews in Koine Greek the lingua-franca of the Roman Empire). Father Gelfant then critiqued the these key changes of Vatican II in terms of St. Paul’s teaching that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” That struck me as an odd approach.

Mass is a remembrance of the Last Supper. Just as Jesus shared His last meal before crucifixion with His friends, Communion is also a meal with friends. Bringing the altar closer to the congregation was intended as recognition of that remembrance. (I have seen many paintings of the Last Supper and I have yet to see one where Jesus had His back to the twelve.) I couldn’t help but wonder if Father Gelfant would invite his friends and family to a celebratory meal and turn his back on them. In fairness, he has probably never thought of it that way, and may just be such a fan of the aesthetics of the Latin rite mass, that he has not fully considered the implications.

But then he spoke of his biretta, the square black cap priests sometimes wear at the beginning and conclusion of the Mass. Its use is optional since Vatican II, but I was left with the impression that he uses it as a statement that he is above us, not of us.

But it was when he began to tell us about and praise the new missal, with all its awkward literal translations (discussed below) that I became angry. He then announced that a Latin Mass was coming back — to St. Finbar’s, I presume. But he didn’t say for sure.

The Latin Mass is a trademark cause for the Catholic Right. It is emblematic of their desire to establish a dissent-free, top-down system of authority. And its reemergence should be the fire-bell in the night warning that the reasonable reforms of Vatican II are being rolled back. The new missal with its literal Latin translations appears to be a first step to restore the old Latin Mass.

That is when I said “no!” and “I dissent!”

His response to my outburst was that “American Catholics think they own the Church.” (I checked with several people to make sure I had heard him correctly. I had.) His rebuke of the faithful who have raised concerns over the new missal was as shocking as it was unmistakable.

It is not my practice to interrupt a speaker in church or anywhere else. But that is when and why I spoke up. Father Gelfant’s words portend a more angry, strident Church; one where Catholics like me are not wanted. And it appears that my own parish priest is among those who want such a church. I hope I am wrong about that.

Father Gelfant’s sneer not withstanding, American Catholics are not alone in their reservations. A large group of Irish priests, for example, wants a five-year moratorium on its implementation, calling it “archaic.”

Representatives from the priests’ group said the proposed literal translations from Latin had produced texts that were “archaic, elitist and obscure and not in keeping with the natural rhythm, cadence and syntax of the English language.”

What are the Irish clergy talking about? Well, one example is that the prayer “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you” becomes “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” As any student of translation knows, idiomatic expressions can be clumsy things.

They also stated:

“We are passionately concerned about the quality of our liturgical celebration and about the quality of the language that will be used in the way we worship Sunday after Sunday,” he said. “If this goes ahead, instead of drawing people into the liturgy, it will in fact draw people out from the liturgy.”

What’s more, the Vatican’s imposition of the awkward new translation has been so heavy-handed that Father Anthony Ruff, until recently chairman on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy which was responsible for the fresh translation of the missal, dropped his support for the project. In a letter to the Jesuit journal America Father Ruff wrote:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process-and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity… I weep.

Objections also come from Great Britain (“Whoever did this work seems to lack a sufficient understanding of our grammar.”); Australia and other parts of the English-speaking world.

That’s why I found Father Gelfant’s comment “American Catholics think they own the Church” at once so illuminating and outrageous. In a single sentence it suggested a deep disdain for transparency and accountability in the Church. It even suggested disrespect for the faithful.

Father Gelfant was also indirectly raising other simmering issues between American Catholics and the hierarchy on everything from ordination of women to artificial birth control to stem cell research. Those of us who hold views that differ from the hierarchy don’t think we should be stigmatized. To the contrary, to loyally question long unchallenged dogmas are part of the traditions of Aquinas, Peter Abelard and Jesus Himself. As Pope John XXIII declared, the Church is on a journey to better understand the Gospels. What Good Pope John understood is that is that while God is immutable, our understanding of Him is not. To accept that notion is not heresy but humility.

But to me, the use of tradition as a tool of authoritarian control is not humility before God. When Father Gelfant derided American Catholics, what I heard him saying between the lines was that he doesn’t like it that we don’t simply “pay, pray and obey.”

Such attitudes seem to be on the rise as many of Father Gelfant’s fellow traditionalists are quite clear in their desire for a smaller, leaner Church, purged free of dissenters. One prominent Opus Dei priest, Rev. John McCloskey has gone so far as to say in his ideal future American Catholic Church: “Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary.” The Church, he says, would be reduced from sixty million members to forty million. And he speaks approvingly of secession that would tear asunder these United States. All this, in the name of advancing a reactionary brand of Catholicism.

Young people have stayed away from the Church in droves since the Church issued Humanae Vitae, its 1968 restatement in opposition to artificial birth control. The Church has also gotten leaner due to the way the Church has dealt with the scandal of pedophile priests. I expect that an hour long Mass in a dead foreign language certainly can’t hurt McCloskey’s membership reduction program.

And so we come full circle to St. Paul’s lesson about “the wisdom of this world.” In order to get the full meaning of his words, we need to go to verses 21-23 which read: “So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

It is the people together with the clergy that comprises the Church. It is not Latin nor birettas nor the priest who turns his back to the congregants that is the Church. It is certainly not a clergy that colludes with nefarious men who would deny workers their wages, pollute the environment and crusade against better access to health care for all people. What is truly foolish in God’s sight is elevating archaic rituals over the needs of His people.

Roman Catholic & Lutheran interaction: “grass roots ecumenism”

LWF President Younan Invites Pope Benedict XVI to Help Plan 500th Anniversary Commemoration

LWF President Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan, assisted by General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge, presents Pope Benedict XVI with a gift from Bethlehem depicting the Last Supper. Second from left is Vatican employee Francesco Cavaliere.

Leaders of the Lutheran World Federation recently met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.  Before considering the report of this latest meeting, here’s the background:

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition. Founded in 1947 in Lund, Sweden, the LWF now has 145 member churches in 79 countries all over the world representing over 70 million Christians.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a prominent member of the Federation, and ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson recently completed a term as President of the LWF.  No other Lutheran denomination in the US belongs to LWF.  Since the ELCA is often criticized by other Lutherans for its social activism, it is hardly surprising that the ELCA is the only U.S. Lutheran denomination participatory in the LWF.  Perusing the LWF website suggests advocacy roles regarding:

  • HIV/AIDS
  • Climate change
  • Illegitimate debt
  • Refugee support
  • Clean water and sanitation in Asian third world countries
    In a November 15th address, current LWF President Dr Munib A. Younan (Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and the successor to ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson) stated:

We are called to work to eradicate poverty, to be prophetic against injustice, to be bridge builders between South and North and East and West, to strengthen our sisters and brothers who suffer or find discrimination because of their faith, and to be responsible for the integrity of creation.

In response to the impulse toward ecumenism following Vatican II, Roman Catholics and Lutherans representing the LWF engaged in years of theological discussions that culminated in a joint statement on the doctrine of justification in 1999.  According to Wikipedia,

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a document created by and agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue, ostensibly resolving the conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.

The Churches acknowledged that the excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification set forth by the Council of Trent do not apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches set forth in the text; likewise, the churches acknowledged that the condemnations set forth in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the Catholic teachings on justification set forth in the document. Confessional Lutherans, such as the International Lutheran Council and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, reject the Declaration.

On July 18, 2006, members of the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document as well.

Bishop Hanson at LWFLast summer after his term as LWF President had ended, ELCA Presiding Bishop was asked about the status of ecumenical relations with the Vatican:

The president had been asked if he could envisage a day when a Roman Catholic and Lutheran married couple could commune together with the blessing of both churches. It is the lay people of the churches who are driving and sustaining these conversations, he responded, acknowledging the “grassroots ecumenism” that is alive among lay people. While leaders wrestle with difficult theological issues, “lay people of different churches pray together, study together and work together to build just societies. “If Roman Catholics and Lutherans [for example] can feed the hungry together, wouldn’t it be good if they could be fed at the Lord’s Table together?”

Hanson acknowledged that he is unlikely to see all Christian churches communing together in his lifetime, but “if I can contribute to that vision being realized I’ll be very grateful.”

Here is personal, anecdotal evidence of the grass roots ecumenism of which Hanson speaks.

I hail from Upsala, Minnesota, originally a Swedish community that actually had a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the anti-German days of WWI, but the purpose of the chapter was not to repress blacks (there were none) but to keep Catholics out of Upsala.  The local Swedes covenanted with each other that they would not sell real estate to Catholic purchasers.  Didn’t work.

St Mary's in UpsalaSkip ahead to 1954, and the Roman Catholic church building from nearby St. Francis in largely German-Catholic Stearns County was moved slowly on rollers five miles north to a prominent place on main street in Upsala.  A very real and symbolic movement of the German Catholics from the south that corresponded with an influx of Polish Catholics from the east (Bowlus, Sobieski, Little Falls).  Grandma Hilma was sure the end times were near.

But, by the 70’s, the Lutheran pastor, the Roman Catholic priest, and the pastor from the Covenant church joined together in a singing group that appeared at nursing homes and elsewhere and also jointly organized a senior center in Upsala.   Local clergy continue to work together in an active ministerial association (the only non-participant is the pastor from the small Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in town).

Most recently, in just the last few months, the Roman Catholics replaced that wooden building that had been relocated to Upsala fifty-six years ago, but the new building would be on the same site as the old one.  Where to gather for mass during construction?  My old congregation, perhaps including the descendants of those who once covenanted to keep the Catholics out of town, offered the use of their facilities and insisted that no rent or remuneration would be accepted.

Construction was completed early in December, and the Catholics at St Mary’s are proudly worshiping in their own building once again.  And, the Lutherans from Gethsemane will soon be their guests for a day when the regular Gethsemane Sunday worship service will move to the new Sanctuary of St. Mary’s, to be followed by a brunch hosted by their Catholic friends.  Just as the Catholics celebrated their Eucharist in the Lutheran church building, the Lutherans will now celebrate their Eucharist in the Catholic church building.  I suspect the folks at both St Mary’s and Gethsemane would be just fine taking the final step and actually celebrating the Eucharist together but for official Roman Catholic policy, but the symbolism of the current events is a striking example of grass roots ecumenism.

This brings us back to the beginning, and the recent meeting between LWF leadership and Pope Benedict XVI.  Here’s the report from the LWF website:

The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) President Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan has invited Pope Benedict XVI to work together with the Lutheran communion in realizing an ecumenically accountable commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

“For us there is joy in the liberating power of the gospel proclaimed afresh by the reformers, and we will celebrate that,” said Younan in a message today, when he led a seven-member delegation in a private audience with the Pope. He underlined the need to recognize both the damaging aspects of the Reformation and ecumenical progress.

“But we cannot achieve this ecumenical accountability on our own, without your help. Thus we invite you to work together with us in preparing this anniversary, so that in 2017 we are closer to sharing in the Bread of Life than we are today.”

Secondly, Bishop Younan expressed similar sentiments to those of Bishop Hanson about the continuing inability of Catholics and Lutherans to celebrate the Eucharist together.

In his statement, Younan reiterated the LWF’s commitment to “moving closer toward one another around this Table of the Lord, which Luther saw as the summa evangelii.” The LWF president pointed out that while it was important to “rejoice in each small step which brings us closer together, we do not want to be content with these steps. We remain strong in hope – both for the full visible unity of Christ’s Church and for the Eucharistic communion which is so crucial a manifestation of that unity.”

I studied with the School of Theology at St John’s Abbey and University in the early ‘90’s.  Once a week, the resident students hosted a meal for the non-residents followed by a mass.  But, a couple of seminarians protested that this was contrary to Catholic doctrine because many of the non-residents were non-Catholics , and the joint mass was discontinued–to the common pain of most of us, Catholic and Protestant alike.  In defense of this exclusive policy, one seminarian suggested that when the rest of us accepted the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, then we would be welcomed.  By that standard, I shouldn’t be celebrating communion with most Lutherans, since I’m sure we don’t all share the same understanding; nor is the understanding of the communing children in our congregation likely to be anywhere close to the understanding of the adults.

At the joint meeting, the Pontiff expressed continuing support for ecumenical dialogue without addressing Catholic exclusivity around the communion rail.

Cross posted at Spirit of a Liberal blog.

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

Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Benedict’s Retrieval of “Old” Liturgy as a “New” Liturgical Movement

At  National Catholic Reporter, John Allen has just published an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s (now Pope Benedict) 1997 memoirs entitled Milestones.  Allen is publishing this excerpt as Benedict issues a motu proprio on the “new liturgical movement” he has sought to effect in the church—a new as in back-to-the-future movement which self-consciously and deliberately retrieves the “old” liturgy in the name of making it new again, following Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.

And here’s what strikes me as I read Ratzinger’s reflections on liturgical renewal in 1997, which continue to provide the foundation for his thinking about liturgy today: Continue reading

Making Benedict’s “Optimistic” Words Count: Ten Theses about Moving from Words to Action

I ended my posting yesterday about Benedict’s recent “optimistic” Portuguese address with the following observation:

The church finds itself in its current “terrifying” position due to decisions the current pope himself made as John Paul II’s theological watchdog, which he has not effectively reversed through his actions up to this point—as fine as his recent words sound.

And so to make my critique constructive, what actions would I hope to see Benedict undertake, if he is sincere about reviving Vatican II’s call for affirmative dialogue with the world, which recognizes that the church can learn from the Spirit’s leading in other religious traditions, as well as in cultural developments and movements? 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

Roman Catholic female ordination

Call to Action logo Call to Action is the largest group of progressive Catholics with roots in the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II, originally sanctioned by the American Council of Bishops, but which became an outsider organization as conservative retrenchment set in during the papacy of John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II repeatedly dashed hopes for any internal liberalizing during his lifetime, and he prepared for the future by appointing as bishops only men who upheld his views on contraception and the ordination of women. Meanwhile, there were crackdowns on theologians like [Hans] Kung and an insistence from Rome that diversity of opinion was not to be tolerated.

The organization is stronger than ever and continues to a thorn in the flesh of the patriarchal and hierarchal Vatican:

We appeal to the institutional church to reform and renew its structures. We also appeal to the people of God to witness to the Spirit who lives within us and to seek ways to serve the vision of God in human society.

We call upon church officials to incorporate women at all levels of ministry and decision-making.

We call upon the church to discard the medieval discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy and to open the priesthood to women and married men…so that the Eucharist may continue to be the center of the spiritual life of all Catholics.

We call for extensive consultation with the Catholic people in developing church teaching on human sexuality.

We claim our responsibility as committed laity, religious and clergy to participate in the selection of our local bishops, a time-honored tradition in the church.

We call for open dialogue, academic freedom, and due process.

We call upon the church to become a model of financial openness on all levels, including the Vatican.

We call for a fundamental change so that young people will see and hear God living in and through the church as a participatory community of believers who practice what they preach.

Another group of progressive Catholics has moved beyond advocacy to open defiance of the Vatican by ordaining women despite excommunication.  Called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, the organization now has five female bishops who are actively ordaining women to the priesthood around the US. 

The Sarasota Florida Herald Tribune offered a lengthy article on Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan and her ordination of two women as priests and one as a deacon over the weekend.

A former nun who the Vatican says has been excommunicated will ordain two women priests and one deacon in Sarasota today, part of a growing and controversial movement claiming to be an offshoot of the Catholic church.

The ordinations will be the first in Florida by the group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which preaches equality for women by allowing them into the priesthood and plays down allegiance to the pope.

Bishop Bridget (center) and two new womenpriests The official Catholic church calls the movement and the ordinations illegitimate, and the local diocese sent letters to parishes saying any Catholics who support the ordination of women by attending today’s ceremony will be automatically excommunicated — a banishment from participating in church sacraments such as baptism and communion until forgiveness is given by a priest.

“Good!” said Bridget Mary Meehan, the former nun who is performing today’s ordinations and is one of five bishops in the national movement. “They’re upping the ante. People will have to be courageous to support us and that is what this is about. Like our sister Rosa Parks, we refuse to sit on the back of the bus any longer.”

A similar story comes from the Sacramento Bee newspaper in California.

To parishioners in her small Sacramento congregation, Elizabeth English is their Catholic priest: She presides over their Sunday Mass, leads them during Communion and baptizes their babies.

To the Roman Catholic Church, English symbolizes a topic that church leaders consider closed: the ordination of women priests.

English left the Roman Catholic Church five years ago to pursue her calling to the priesthood. She is now a priest in the Independent Catholic Church, a group not recognized by the Vatican. She is the only female Catholic priest in the Sacramento region.

“I had to leave the church; there was no place for me,” she said. “I wish there was.”

Another of the five Womenpriest bishops, Andrea M. Johnson, will appear tomorrow at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University.  Bishop Johnson will speak and participate in a blue ribbon panel discussion about female ordination.  This information comes from blogger Wild Hair whose self description is “Roman Catholic Priest, still in reasonably good standing; aka: eminence, the cardinal archbishop of HGN.”

Finally, Bishop Bridget mentioned earlier has her own blog with lots of info and links about the Womenpriest movement.  Check it out.

This article is cross posted at Spirit of a Liberal.

John Paul II’s Penitential Practices and Competing Narratives about Sanctity in the Postmodern Church

There was a time, before the Second Vatican Council prompted religious congregations to return to the charisms of their founders, when practices of self-abnegation including self-flagellation were de rigueur in some communities.  Some orders, in fact, practiced self-flagellation in a communitarian setting.  A Redemptorist priest I once knew described to me how his community would gather on designated evenings in a dark hallway, where they’d recite the penitential psalms while whipping their bare backs.  They also wore cilices, little devices for self-torture with sharp points, which are tied tightly around one’s thigh to induce pain when one moves.

These practices—in particular, the enforced, institutionalized, all-together-now mortification of the flesh in a communitarian setting—tended to go by the wayside in religious life with Vatican II.  They did so for a good reason: they ultimately had little to do with what being a nun, priest, or brother was really all about.  They had little to do with the charisms and missions of religious communities, with the calling of a community to tend to the sick, live among the poor, teach, provide shelter for the homeless, assist immigrants, etc. Continue reading

The Nostalgic Dream of a Mythical, Constant, Monarchical Papacy.

In the comments thread to Frank Cocozelli’s post on “Carlism and the American right”, there are some observations by reader Eric Jones which deserve a more appropriate  response than simple burial in the comments.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious

Frank’s post showed how so much of the thinking of the Catholic right is rooted in the philosophy of the Spanish Carlists, a philosophy which was “the pre-eminent political philosophy in Spain from the 1830s through the reign of Franco’s regime.” What drew me into the discussion was a comment in response to Franks’s reference to “theoconservatives such as John Neuhaus, Robert H. Bork and to a lesser extent, George Weigel”, which stated that  “most of the men that you cite (Fr. Neuhaus, George Wiegel, Mr. Monaghan, etc.) are really quite liberal when it comes right down to it”, and continued with the fairly common assertion

Since when, I’d like to know, does Catholicism, a coherent theological and philosophical belief system with explicit teachings, been open to question, or to dissent by its members? What gives a Catholic the ‘right’ to speak against a teaching, any more than the Americans had a ‘right’ to commit treason against their lawful sovereign before God and men in 1776?


Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century
Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century

This suggestion to me is like the proverbial red rag to a bull: I entirely reject and resent the notion that “Catholicism” requires blind obedience to anything, so I replied accordingly:

Catholicism has always been open to question. It may well be a “coherent philosophical system”, but that does not mean we are expected to switch off our brains and bow down to the voice of the Catechism. This is just as well, for history shows that the official teachings have frequently been wrong. (on slavery, usury, and the “dangers” of democracy, for example).

This is where it gets interesting, because Eric has since replied, with an argument entirely new to me: that the Church has not in fact rejected slavery, except in it’s abusive forms; that usury remains sinful, but is tolerated as a necessary evil; and that the Church in the 19th century was right to have rejected democracy.

The Church’s teaching on slavery is that it is not intrinsically evil, but nevertheless is almost never conducive to the salvation of souls … The morality of slavery has not changed a whit from Roman times until now —something which could be tolerated in the fairly benign and customary form it took in ancient Rome…..

Usury is still sinful, too, despite the fact that its practice is virtually universal today

Likewise, democracy, while not, strictly speaking, evil in itself, is an inferior form of government ………… it is very dangerous for the faith.

He then presents the more familiar arguments that Vatican II was “demonstrably wrong”, as shown by its subversion of the “constant teaching” of the Church’s long tradition.

I reject Eric’s observations pretty well in their entirety, but they deserve to be taken seriously, because they clearly illustrate, in an extreme form, the assumptions and loose thinking that underlay so much of the arguments of the Catholic right that Frank Cocozelli tackled in the first place.

The first assumption, of course, is that there is such a thing as the Church’s “constant” tradition.  The simple truth, as should be obvious to anyone who looks at Church history, is that the only “constancy” in Church tradition, has been its regular process of change. This is to be expected:  all of nature, all of humanity, all of society, is constantly changing.  It would be quite extraordinary if it were otherwise.

One of the areas where this change has been most evident , is in the institution of the papacy itself.  The modern papacy, likes to present itself as a model of continuity, in unbroken succession from Peter, and always at the head of the Church, in a monarchical model as absolute ruler and guide.  I leave aside the question of the “unbroken succession”, which I have discussed before (in “The Bishops of Rome”).  However, the idea of the pope as a quasi- monarchical, absolute  ruler also does not stand up to scrutiny. As the pictures alongside show, the dress and pageantry of the modern papcy bear some startling resemblances to those of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, but it was not always so.

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell

In the very beginning, in the first century of the Christian era, not only was there not a “pope”, there was not even a bishop of Rome.  The name and office of  “bishop” began to be applied by around the end of the first century – but only in the Eastern church.  When Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the leaders of the scattered churches, he addressed by name the “bishops” of each local church: except in Rome, where there does not appear to have been any bishop, and where the church was governed by a college of elders. Even where there were “bishops”, the office was dramatically different to the one we know today. Instead of the monarchical figure of authority we are used to  now, he was much more like a team leader , supported and advised by his college of “elders” – or “presbyters”.  Note that the term “priest” was not widely used until the end of the second century – and was first applied as a synonym for “bishop”.  only later did it come to apply to the “presbyters”.

Local churches operated essentially autonomously, with several of them (not only Rome) recognized as “apostolic sees” (that is, founded by one or other of the apostles).  In time, the see of Rome came to be recognized as having a special status as first among equals, but that applies originally to the diocese, not to the office-holder.  Gradually, certain sees became recognized as holding authority over neighbouring areas. Rome was one of these – but with authority recognized only over only Italy and Gaul.  Even Spain was subservient not to Rome, but to Carthage, while Alexandria looked after Egypt and Libya, Antioch Syria and Cilicia, and Ephesus Asia Minor and Phrygia.

As the term “pope” came into usage, even this term was not applied uniquely to the bishop of Rome – other senior bishops also adopted the title. For many centuries, the story of the papacy was of a continuing struggle by the see of Rome to assert power and control over the rest of the Church – and continuing efforts by the rest of the Church to deny and resist these claims. The ultimate ascendancy of Rome over the other major sees did not come by agreement or by force of argument – but simply by the Islamic ascendancy, which swept away strong Christian churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandra, and later Constantinople.  Note that in those parts of the East where Christianity was able to survive, it was in the form of the Orthodox church – which has still not recognized the primacy of Rome.

Eric’s extraordinary dismissal of “democracy” is also entirely misplaced:  it was the default procedure of the earliest church, which routinely took decisions collectively. For many centuries, bishops were often elected, not appointed, and many pope’s themselves recognised that their authority did not exceed the collective wisdom of the other bishops.  The easy dismissal of the second Vatican Council is equally unjustified.  It is a complete myth that this council swept away long-standing “tradition” and so lacks authority.  On the contrary, the first Vatican Council, which was called precisely in defence of the monarchical principle and against the tide of democracy then spreading across Europe, was the one which brushed aside much that had previously important in the established tradition of the Church. Vatican II, in assessing the situation of the Church in the modern world, did not simply assert new principles, but re-asserted older ones that had been forgotten.

Imposing_the_Cardinal's_Berretta
Imposing the Cardinal’s Beretta

Even one of the most visible and obvious reforms, to replace Latin in the liturgy with the vernacular, was not a revolutionary principle:  Latin itself had been introduced, a millennium and a half earlier for precisely the same reason:  because Latin had become the common language of the people of the Church, who were excluded by the Greek of the existing Scriptures   (Jerome’s famous Latin translation of the Bible, the “Vulgate” was so called for excellent reason:  “Vulgate” meant of the common people).

Eric states: “These doctrines cannot change: what was true in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died, 1198 (accession of Pope Innocent III, arguably the height of the Middle Ages) 1565 (Council of Trent) and 1962 (first year of Vatican II) is still just as true today.”

If we are to accept this at face value, and to apply to the Church today what was true “in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died”, we would not be seeking to impose a grandiose, autocratic papal monarchy, but would be practicing church democracy, without an exclusive professional clergy, meeting and worshipping in small, domestic spaces.  Truth endures, but doctrine and church practice do  not.  To believe that they do, is as fanciful as the bizarre notion that Roman slavery was “benign”.  That was certainly not the view of the slaves who experienced it, nor of the historians who have noted that in (admittedly exceptional) cases, some wealthy slave-owners thought nothing of having them killed for sport, as hunters do wild animals, for the entertainment of their guests.

Far from being the “constant tradition” of the church, the imperial, autocratic model described by Eric is a medieval hangover,  modeled on the Holy Roman Empire. The attempts to extend, fossilize and preserve the model at the first Vatican Council had nothing whatever to do with the Gospel’s the teaching of the Church fathers, the practice of the early church, or with authentic Catholic tradition. Instead, it was quite simply a clear attempt to increase papal power still further, in total contrast with the movements towards democracy sweeping across Europe.

Vatican II did not so away with Catholic tradition – to a large degree, it was reasserting it, undoing some of the damage of Vatican I.

Further Reading:

Priesthood: Medieval Mythmaking

Davidson, I: The Birth of the Church: from Jesus to Constantine, AD30 – 312

Duffy, E: Saints and Sinners (A history of the Papacy)