Coming Up for Air: Returning to the Blogosphere

It’s been an absolutely crazy time on many levels since my last blog posting.  I have officially “retired”, although I’m teaching more courses than ever at several universities, traveling to speak with groups of priests, of deacons and their wives, and directing retreats.  We have moved back to our home in Florida, saying farewell to family, friends and co-workers in California, and saying “we’re back!” to old friends and co-workers down here.  In ministry I have left a wonderful, extraordinary parish and returned to another where I served before heading out to California.

And, of course, since my last blog post, Donald John Trump has transitioned from being President-elect to being President of the United States.

I’ll be returning to active blogging shortly.

Happy Sunday!

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis: Living, Loving and Leading through the Trump Presidency

GOP 2016-Why So Many

Act I is over.  Remember Act I?  All those presidential candidates sniping and name-calling and down-shouting.  I confess at first I found it rather entertaining, but before too long it became depressing yet mesmerizing, rather like watching a snake  charmer seducing a crowd.  Act I culminated in the national political conventions where the unbelievable happened.  The man most people voted the least likely to succeed in politics walked away with the Republican nomination and the woman with one of the most substantive public service resumes ever earned became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party for the office of President.  Those political conventions were the opening scene of Act II.

theaterNow, Act II is over.  The general campaign was brutal, bloody, bizarre, virulent, draining and depressing as two vastly different visions of our nation emerged.  Let’s face it: today as I write these words, no one is completely satisfied with the process or even the outcome. The wounds and the scars are deep.  But now Act II is also completed, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president-elect of the United States of America.  We’re now in the intermission of the transition, and that will end on 20 January 2017 when Mr. Trump places his hand on a Bible and swears the Oath of Office and he becomes President Trump.  At that moment, the curtain will rise on Act III.

trumpThe question for all of us is quite simple: What do we do now?  We are not an audience at a play.  We are not observers, but participants in our public life.  There is a term which became common during the Second Vatican Council: we are “co-responsible” for our lives and the life of our republic.  So where does that lead us today, the first day following the election?  The people who supported and voted for Donald Trump are ecstatic and triumphant; those who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton are reeling and depressed.  Those who supported third party candidates or who chose not to vote for any candidate are, well, I honestly don’t know how they feel.  But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that one feeling is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: almost everyone is feeling cut off and disenfranchised.  That was the stated position of those who supported Mr. Trump; it is also the position of those who supported Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton.  What should we be doing as we prepare for Act III?

scyllaHomer’s Odysseus, navigating his way home after the Trojan War, encounters the twin hazards of the Scylla and Charybdis: steer too close to the “rocks” of the Scylla and six sailors will be taken; steer too close the whirlpool Charybdis and the whole ship and crew will be lost.  It’s the classic conundrum much like our own expression of being “between a rock and a hard place.”  In today’s America, then, do we just proceed as we have over the last year and a half, and keep speaking of the Scylla of “winners” and the Charybdis of “losers”?  Is there a way, perhaps of navigating between these two hazards and overcoming some of the polarities of our national life?  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Donald Trump.  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton (and for other candidates).  Caricatures on both sides will not help us move forward.

What I’m proposing below is something that we who are people of faith might do within our various churches and communities to move forward in a positive way, to seek the light and not to descend into darkness.  How might we be, in the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, “a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God”?

I offer four things to consider.  These are clearly suggestive and not exhaustive, but these will help suggest others.

  • We must be active agents of peace and reconciliation. No matter who had won the election, it’s been clear for some time that half of our people are going to feel left out, disappointed, angry and marginalized by the outcome.  We must find a way to take the high ground and model between each other and toward our sisters and brothers who have supported “the other side” the Christian love that is to characterize us all.  How we relate to each other, even privately, can have either a positive or negative effect as we go forward.  For those of us who serve as public ministers of the Gospel, we must guard are tongues and our behaviors – not only for the sake of others but for our own as well.
  • We must move beyond categories of “winners” and “losers”. If we permit this kind distinction to permeate our communities, we enable the very gridlock that has characterized so much of our public discourse for so many years.  I am reminded of the senior Republican leader who, after the first election of President Obama, declared that the agenda of his party would be to make sure nothing of the new President’s agenda was successful.  However, this is certainly not unique to one party; both parties share in this kind of attitude, and their public assertions have affected many in our communities, churches and parishes.  It seems to me that we must find ways to stress those things that bind us together rather than divide us.  As Catholics who share in the sacramental life of the Church, and especially as we gather around the sacrificial altar of the Eucharist in communion, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we are all God’s children saved by Christ’s saving action and filled with the Spirit of reconciliation and mission.
  • We can offer opportunities for listening and dialogue, with a view toward reconciliation. If it seems appropriate within your parish and community, perhaps we might offer guided listening sessions in which people might share their own pain and concerns.  It will be important that someone skilled in facilitating such sessions be involved so that they do not simply increase the tension.  The purpose is not to exacerbate the problems, or to argue the various issues all over again!  Rather, this would be an attempt to map out how we can all move forward.
  • Finally, how might we all become even more involved in the local political scene? For those of us who are clergy, we are restricted by canon and civil law in the ways we can do so, although deacons in the Catholic Church — with the prior permission of our bishops — can be active to a degree that priests and bishops cannot.  As we have seen in previous columns, our deacons might even serve in public office as long as they get prior written permission from their diocesan bishop. But even more important, how might we continue to encourage even greater participation in the public life of the community?  We all have a responsibility to do something and not just complain about things.

We all need to take a deep breath and  — as we sailors like to say — “take an even strain” on the lines.  If we take the high ground and stay energized and motivated to work for the common good of all, we can indeed move forward.  We can — we MUST — see this new Act as an renewed opportunity to help transform, even if on a small and local scale, public discourse and the political landscape in which the common good of all can be served. I will bring this essay to a close with the words we all learned by heart in elementary school.  May we now live them in a mature and profound way as we move forward.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

preamble

 

Deacons and Politics: Walking the Tightrope

Religion + PoliticsI have written a lot on this subject, but it is one that bears revisiting every election cycle.  As I write this, it seems certain that the two nominees for this year’s presidential election will be Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.  In my lifetime I have never experienced anything approaching the madness of the primary process, and the general campaign promises more of the same.  So, I hope this review is helpful, since deacons fall into some unique categories on this subject under canon law!

Before turning to the specifics of canon law, let me offer three preliminary points:

  1. chest7One often hears that the reason we clergy are supposed to be impartial with regard to support or opposition to particular political parties, campaigns or candidates is because “the Church” might lose its tax-exempt status.  Often, after making such a claim, chest-pounding ensues as the claimant declaims, “Some things are just too important to worry about such things!  If we lose tax exempt status, so be it!  We have to stand up for what we believe.”  In the Navy, we refer to this as the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” response.  Here’s the problem.  This isn’t about tax exempt status.  It is, rather, about the universal law of the Latin Church, which couldn’t care less about our tax exempt status.
  2. Another claim holds that “this is my right as an American citizen” to participate publicly in political life.  That is certainly true.  However, by accepting ordination, the deacon has voluntarily placed himself under the authority of additional legal and moral authority.  Namely, how a cleric, and in particular, the deacon participates in political life is now affected by more than the US Constitution.
  3. buildWe clergy exist, according to Church teaching (cf. especially Lumen gentium #18) to build up the People of God.  Our actions then must be understood with that end in mind: are the words I’m using, the actions I’m taking, the positions I’m teaching all serving to build up, or do they tear down.  It is easy in the heat of the moment to let our emotions get the better of us, and especially when the rhetoric surrounding our current political “discourse” is so heated and volatile, we might succumb to the temptation to be just as superheated in our responses.  Again, not only does our teaching enlighten us in this regard, so too does our church law, as shall be seen below.

zzclsacodesmCanon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons are not exampted) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.” The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters. In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner or demeanor, which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far. While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.

AllSaintsSo where does this leave us?  Deacons, although clerics, may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics under the law. However, they are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, most significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony? Since permanent deacons may become more engaged in the political sphere than presbyters (with the permission of their bishop), this will take on particular relevance for deacons. Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop.

mediaThings are so much more complicated today than in years past, with all of the various social media available.  Tweets can replace reasoned response, a Facebook status can mimic a political platform, and even a “like” can raise political tempers.  Furthermore, what about the deacon’s family and their rights and obligations to participate fully in the political process?  In one common example, what if the deacon’s family wants to put a yard sign supporting a particular candidate in the yard, or to put a bumper sticker on the family car?  Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign.

All of us, lay and cleric, are obliged to participate appropriately in the political process. One would hope that all people, lay and cleric, will want to “build up the People of God” and not tear down!  However, as clerics – and in a particularly challenging way, permanent deacons – we have not only a moral obligation to do so, but a legal one as well.  This means that we must often walk a fine moral tightrope in doing so.

Reckless person

Formation of Conscience, Step Two: “Be an Adult”

Vatican PopeOne thought has remained with me from the first reading of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia: this is an ADULT document.  It is written by a mature adult man who is comfortable in his own relationship with God and with other people, able to see things both as they are and as they could be.  Through the lens of his own life’s experience he recognizes his own weaknesses and failures and owns his own need for God’s forgiveness and the help of others to get through any given day.  This mature adult man has written a document that presumes his readership is similarly disposed.  He writes directly, explicitly, and knowledgeably about the human condition, the role of the Church, and the relationship of the two.  It is, in short, a text written by an adult for other adults.  As Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago observed in his press conference on the release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis is calling us all to “an adult spirituality.”

What does an “adult spirituality” look like?  I ask this in connection with these short reflections on the formation of conscience, because I think it lies at the heart of the matter.

simple balanced cropped-500x500First, I think an adult spirituality is balanced, reasonable and well-integrated.  An adult point of view, it seems to me, is found when a person has learned — usually through hard experience — to steer a course between extremes.  Consider one simple example.  Some people seem naturally disposed to see everything through a negative lens: nothing can ever be done right, some people can just never say anything that is not immediately criticized, and no one can really be trusted.  I suppose if one crept along this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the home of cynicism.  On the other hand, some people are just as disposed to see everything in a positive light: they see the good in what others do and say, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Following this point of view to its extreme, one would arrive at the land of rose-colored glasses.  However, the wisdom of maturity would generally find, along  with Aristotle, the “golden mean”or, as the ancient Latin has it, “In medio stat virtus“: virtue stands in the middle.  Applying this to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia: consider some of the online responses one finds everywhere: some people were determined to condemn it even before it was promulgated while others were similarly inclined to “canonize” it, also without reading it.  A balanced, reasonable, and well-integrated adult would, of course, read the document and form conclusions both positive and negative.  Amoris Laetitia is not Holy Writ; neither is it from Satan.

respect-honesty-ethics-integrity-street-sign-photo-846x634Second, an adult spirituality is honest with one’s self and with others, especially about one’s own limitations.  When confronting challenges, an adult comes to know that there are limits to his or her abilities: intellectual, affective, and physical.  They come to accept that we all need assistance in a variety of ways.  In recognizing their own limitations, the mature adult tends to be more understanding of the limitations of others.  This is a key theme of Amoris Laetitia.  All are weak in various ways and we acknowledge and work within that weakness; we do not demand that a person first become strong before we work with them.  God’s grace and mercy is necessary for all and, as the Holy Father stresses, “true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.” (AL 296)  A person does not have to “prove” or “earn” our mercy any more than we have deserved God’s mercy in our own lives.  Mature adults understand that.

keep-calm-because-stuff-happensThird, an adult spirituality acknowledges the contingencies of life.  In the sections of Amoris Laetitia which address the specifics of marriage and family life, the Holy Father shows a remarkable understanding of  how hard most people struggle with the uncertainties of life: holding a job that can support one’s family, dealing with fatigue and failure, the pressures of being a single parent and on and on.  Most people come to understand that the vast majority of folks are simply trying to do the absolute best they can despite whatever challenges they face.  Others may come to different decisions than we might, but there is a presumption based on experience that most people are trying to do their best.  However, here we find some tension again between those who have a more positive perspective on human nature and those who are more negative, and would never presume that other people would do their best!  Pope Francis recognizes this difference of perspective when he writes,

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.  But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

christ dachau

Christ at Dachau

Fourth, an adult spirituality finds God’s presence in all aspects of life.  Experience teaches a person of faith that God is active and present even when a person feels alone, abandoned, or powerless.  There is a sense of tranquility that comes to a person, even in the midst of suffering, which communicates God’s “accompaniment” (to use one of Pope Francis’ favorite expressions) on that journey.  Just as God never abandons us, we are not to abandon others in their own need.  The Holy Father spends considerable time in AL reminding us that not only should those who are divorced or in irregular unions are not to feel themselves cut off completely from the church, nor are we to adopt practices and attitudes which convey or support such a feeling of isolation and excommunication.  Simply put, God never abandons us, and we cannot abandon others.

 

Fifth, an adult spirituality deals with the real, not the hypothetical.  Hypothetical situations abound, but we generally have to deal with one situation at a time, resolve it as best we can, and move on to the next.  While a certain amount of hypothesizing happens with all of us as we try to plan for the future, but in general, we take one very real circumstance on at a time.  I keep thinking of St. John XXIII’s famous passage in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council when he proclaims to the thousands of assembled bishops:

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        In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

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.

In much of the criticism of Pope Francis and this Exhortation, one detects the same voice of the “prophets of gloom” which St. John XXIII mentions.  I think Pope Francis would agree wholeheartedly with his sainted predecessor that it is still God who is in charge and still “leading us to a new order of human relations” which goes far beyond our poor human attempt to understand fully.  Like those earlier critics of the Council, much hand wringing is taking place about “what ifs”: “What if” a pastor just looks for a loophole to let divorced and remarried people back to Communion?  “What if” a person doesn’t form their conscience as rigorously as they should?  “What if” people abuse this teaching and simply ignore the longstanding teaching of the church?  “What if,” indeed.  Realistically, will such things happen?  Of course they will, and no mature adult would deny that possibility.  On the other hand, shouldn’t we adopt a position that we will deal with those situations as they occur, if they occur, and when they occur?  In the meantime, as John did with the Council, let’s move forward. “Siempre Adelante!” as Pope Francis challenged us during his homily in Washington, DC.

So, in forming our consciences, we do so as mature adults, striving as best we can and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s will for our lives.

 

 

Formation of Conscience, Step One: “Mind Your Own Business!”

Italy Greece Pope Refugees

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis never ceases to challenge us across a spectrum of issues.  How we treat the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, even nature itself are all matters of grave moral concern.  He reminds us that we best confront these issues through our encounters with one person at a time, by being the hands of God’s own mercy.

Pope Francis bases his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) on several fundamental principles, which I hope to examine in future blog posts.  Here, however, we consider briefly perhaps the most fundamental: the matter of the individual moral conscience. The expectation of the Church, well expressed by the Holy Father, is that we confront life’s challenges in a morally responsible and mature way.  More about that in a moment, but first, what do we teach about the conscience?

76_2731812The core of the Church’s teaching on conscience is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (GS), 16:

In the depths of conscience, a person detects a law which he does not give to himself, but which he must obey. Always summoning the person to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For the person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.

VaticanIIOne thing many observers forget, however, is that we are bound to follow our conscience, even if that means we are responsible for errors we make!  GS 16 continues:

The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

So, in summary: we must make every attempt to properly form our consciences, but we are bound to follow our conscience even if later that judgment is found to be in error.  Saying that something is “in accordance with my conscience” does not mean that it is necessarily accurate or correct or infallible.  It means that we take adult responsibility both for the formation of conscience and our actions taken in response to it.

With this as context (read more about the moral conscience  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), we return to Amoris Laetitia.  In AL 37, the pope writes:

Pray-for-one-AnotherWe have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

So we arrive at the first point I want to make about the conscience.  The conscience is subjective: it belongs to each, individual, human subject.  While other persons: family, friends, pastors, bishops, deacons, religious, catechists, scientists and teachers may assist me in the formation of my conscience, ultimately, as Vatican II teaches, I am alone with God in my conscience.  Someone else’s conscience cannot serve as — or replace — my own conscience.

Therefore, my first reflection on the formation of conscience is simple: “Mind your (my) own business”!  Consider the following scenario:

SCENARIO:

At Mass, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  John and Jane Doe, longtime parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Anytown, USA, join the communion procession, approach Deacon James Jones and receive Communion.

REACTION #1:

Mrs. Smith approaches Deacon Jones after Mass.  “I’m scandalized, Deacon, that you gave Communion to those two!  You know as well as I do that they’re divorced and re-married outside the Church!  How dare you violate the Church’s law?”

REACTION #2:

After Mrs. Smith storms off, Dr. Baker heads over to the deacon. “What the hell is going on, Deacon?  Those two people haven’t received Communion in years.  Yes, I know they’re very active here, but they used to respect our church’s laws.  Now, this?  You know they’re divorced and all, Deacon, and you gave them Communion anyway!  The bishop’s going to hear about this.”

xelr0ija02tp7fwysm351br5fol_largeThe weekend after AL was presented to the world, a friend presented me just that scenario.  “What would happen if a divorced and remarried couple, who had refrained from receiving communion for many years, began receiving communion again?  That would be a terrible scandal, and the pope says we are to avoid scandal!”  What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion?  This process of conscience formation, which as the pope reminds us, is not done with a view to sidestepping the law.  However, it is done with due consideration of unique aspects of their own past experiences and current responsibilities for their children and so on.  And, they each reach a decision point in conscience.  And, “according to it [each of them] will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”

BOTTOM LINE: If a person winds up receiving Holy Communion unworthily, the responsibility for doing so rests with that individual, and no one else.  We do not force our own conscience on someone else.  “We are called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

So, consider a third possible reaction:

REACTION #3:

Mr. and Mrs. Williams approach the Deacon after Mass, beaming with joy.  “It was so wonderful to see Jane and John receiving Communion this morning!”

FOR REFLECTION

  1. How do we assist others in the formation of conscience?  Do we get to a point where we “let go” and let them arrive at their own decision in conscience?
  2. When we see someone acting in a particular way, do we presume that they are acting in good faith, or bad faith?  Notice in the first two reactions above: the presumption was being made that John and Jane were acting “in bad faith” and flaunting their “irregular” situation.  In reaction #3, however, the presumption was that they were acting “in good faith.”
  3. At what point do I have simply have to mind my own business concerning others?

Consider St. Paul’s advice to the Romans (14:1-14)(emphasis added):

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

 

 

There is no “Christianity”: Thoughts on Extremism and Christianity

Got your attention?  Now let me explain.

Lenten purpleThe headlines surrounding a recently-released study scream:  “Increasing number of Americans consider Christianity ‘to be extremist'” followed by the quote: “The perception that the Christian faith is extreme,” says Barna Group, “is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians.”  [Read the full article here.]  I am in the process of examining the study, so I will have more to say about it once I’ve finished.  However, there is one thing that I believe must be said at the outset: there is no “Christianity”.

Here’s what I mean.  Tragically, there is no singular, undivided, undifferentiated body of disciples known as Christianity.  There are almost as many forms of “Christianity” as there are Christians, so to speak of “Christianity” as a single corporate entity is simply inadequate.  Consider only a few examples.

We have long had distinctions between expressions of Christianity, East and West.  Such variety existed long before the formal break in 1054 AD.  On the positive side, Christianity has consistently acknowledged and accepted the simple fact that unity in faith does not necessarily equate to uniformity in practice.  The “one faith” can be expressed in a wide variety of ways!  Even today, the Catholic Church exists as a communion of some 27 ritual churches, of which the Latin (or Roman) Church is but one.  So, within Catholic Christianity can be found these diverse communities of faith all in communion with each other, even though they have different sacramental theologies and even different canon law.  So far, so good then: it is possible that “Christianity” lived in such a diverse way can be seen as a united faith.

Cuba Pope Patriarch (1) (2)On the negative side, however, since 1054, some of these Eastern churches (not all of them) broke with Rome and became what is referred to now as the Orthodox Churches.  While theology formed a part of the rationale between the split (consider the filioque debate, for example), the larger issues revolved around the authority of the See of Rome.  Only over the last 100 years or so have we seen some real progress in restoring full communion.  Then, of course, in the 16th Century we find Latin Christianity fracturing even more through the theological and ecclesial reforms demanded by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others.  Within the framework of evolving philosophical, theological, political and social trends, these disagreements quickly moved out of the university setting and into the streets, creating the chasms between Christians we still experience today, despite Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, “that they all may be one, Father, as you and I are one.”

So, today, what IS “Christianity”?  Before one can make a claim about Christianity (such as the claim in the article that “Christianity is extremist”) it seems to me you must clearly define some terms, beginning with the question, “Which Christianity are you talking about?”  While all Christians can agree (possibly) on the nature and role of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah of God,  and that all Christians see themselves as followers of this Christ, after that things get murky quickly.

world viewConsider a basic world view.  How do Christians view the world?  Some groups of Christians have a very positive view of God’s creation, frequently citing the words of Genesis in which God proclaims creation to be “good.”  Creation is, therefore, in this view, good by nature — with evil entering into the picture only later through the deliberate, free will choices of human beings.  Other groups of Christians have an opposite view of the world, seeing creation as inherently flawed.  Martin Luther, for example, frequently wrote things such as, “our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so.”

128756_imagnoConsider how inclusivist (“catholic”) or exclusivist various Christian groups can be.  One of my own saddest experiences in this regard occurred some years ago when I was still on active duty in the Navy.  A good friend was part of the Protestant chapel community on our base.  He was participating in the annual Holy Thursday reenactment of the Last Supper, put on by the Protestant chaplains.  I went over to help get the apostles into their beards and costumes and stuck around to watch it.  Shortly before leaving to go to the Catholic chapel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I watched the beginning of the communion service following the reenactment.  The senior Protestant chaplain stood and give directions to the assembly on how to come forward for communion.  Ministers of particular denominations would be on other side, and adherents of those denominations were to go to “their own” minister; a “general communion” was being offered down the main central aisle of the chapel, and those who were not in the other two churches could receive in the “general” line.  Naturally, of course, it struck me that I was about to head over to our own Mass, during which only Catholics could receive Communion.  It left me quite saddened to see — at the moment when you would think Christians could be MOST united — we were the most divided.

diversitySo, today, we have Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Non-Denominational Christians, along with other forms of Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and on and on and on.  Because of many reasons, such as the “world view” distinctions mentioned above, some of these Christians look for everything to be black and white, clearly distinguished.  Sin, for example, is sin.  Something is either sinful or it is not.  There is no gradation in sinfulness: telling a lie (regardless of situation or intent) is as grave as murder.  In this view, you are either with me totally and completely or you are against me totally and completely.  Other Christians seem to say that anything goes if it’s what you want.  You determine everything yourself about what you will choose to believe and so on.  Then there are Christians in the middle, who marry philosophy and theology, reason and faith.  Given this diversity then, we come to the question raised by the article: Are Christians extremists?

InterreligiousThat raises the need to define the other term of the argument: How do we define “extremist”?  In the list of statements included in the study, I found myself agreeing that some of them certainly reflected “extremism” as I understand it, while others do not.  However, ALL them made me think and to reflect, and that is always a good thing.

For example, statements such as “using religion to justify violence against others” and “refusing standard medical care for their children” or “refusing to serve someone because the other person’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs” certainly bespeak extremism in a negative sense.  Others, however, such as “demonstrating outside an organization they consider immoral” [would this include the civil rights marches of the 1960’s as well, I wonder?] or “attempting to convert others to their faith” [depending of course on the methods used!] do not.  Read the full study and see what YOU think.

So, is “Christianity” extremist?  What a terribly loaded question!  Depending on what a person thinks is “extremist”, coupled with the tragic differences among Christians ourselves, the only reasonable answer, it seems to me, lies in the middle:

“Some are, some aren’t.”

LENTEN REFLECTION: As a Lenten reflection, we can all ponder what forms extremism, especially religious extremism, can take.  Perhaps it is, like Benjamin Franklin used to say about treason, more easily discerned in others than in ourselves!  I offer this post not to start an argument over this particular study, or to offer some kind of societal critique.  I offer it simply as a point of departure for a Lenten reflection on how we live out in concrete terms the implications of our faith.