Monday, December 21, 2015

Pope Francis' 2015 Pre-Christmas Address to the Curia

Despite his not feeling well (he acknowledged that he has been suffering from a cold), Pope Francis addressed the staff of his Curia on Monday, December 21, 2015.

Giving his reflections while seated (he apologized for not standing), Pope Francis recalled his address last year when he  listed some illnesses or temptations that Curia staff must face. On that occasion he developed an examination of conscience, urging his audience to be careful not to give in to such things as being too busy, becoming hard-hearted, failing to coordinate with other members, spreading gossip, failing to smile.

This year he offered what he termed “curial antibiotics” which could help treat some of the diseases he listed last year, diseases which became evident during the past year and which, he said, caused “no small pain to the entire body, harming many souls, even by scandal.”

Reiterating the dictum  “Ecclesia semeper reformanda” (the Church is always in need of reform), Pope Francis assured his staff that “the reform will move forward with determination, clarity, and firm resolve.”

Despite these diseases and even scandals, the Holy Father quickly added his heartfelt gratitude and needed encouragement “to all those good and honest men and women in the Curia who work with dedication, devotion, fidelity and professionalism.”

He then listed for them a number of virtues which he urged them to embrace and put into practice.

He presented this year’s list following an acrostic for the Latin term misericordia (mercy) which does not easily transfer into English. But using each letter of misericordia, Pope Francis recalled virtues, attitudes, and actions which he urged his staff to put into practice.

He began with “M” –and related that letter to “missionary” spirit, reminding the gathering that all who are baptized are called to be missionaries endowed with  pastoral sensitivity.

His address further urged the staff to be wise and creative, fulfilling their jobs with intelligence, insight, and appropriateness. Pope Francis recalled the need for a spirituality which keeps a person human and not robotic. He asked them to set a good example, to avoid emotional excesses, to have a spirit of determination but capable of restraint from impulsive, hasty actions.

He encouraged them to practice charity, to be truthful , humble, diligent, alert, and accountable.

Pope Francis put all these virtues in the context of the Year of Mercy, noting that mercy is the virtue of those who choose to put on the heart of Christ.

“And so,” he concluded, “may mercy guide our steps, inspire our reforms and enlighten our decisions. May it be the basis of all our efforts. May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back. May it also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater plan of salvation, in his majestic and mysterious works.”

Pope Francis is a man of many talents, a multi-faceted leader who knows when to push and when to ease the pressure. He is resolute but patient. He sees reality but does not give in to discouragement. We have a man of deep, practical faith in the role of St Peter, and we who listen to him, admire him, support him must not neglect to respond to his constant request, “Pray for me.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Kairos Moment for Reformation and Celebration

We cannot know how long we will have Pope Francis with us (I fear for his life) but we can be sure that this moment in Church history is a kairos, a time of grace.

He has embraced the mandate given him by the cardinals who elected him, namely to reform the Church, especially its bureaucracy.

The so-called Vatileak documents verify the serious problems present in the offices, departments, and dicasteries which form the management structures of the Vatican. The turf wars, the manipulation of funds, the misappropriation of revenues, the incompetent (some say “corrupt”) book-keeping practices, the failure to follow accounting regulations, the secrecy, the resistance to reform measures –all characterize the institution Francis is working to reform.

He put it bluntly to cardinals in the Curia on July 3, 2013: “We have to better clarify the finances of the Holy See and make them more transparent…It is no exaggeration to say that most of our costs are out of control…Our books are not in order; we have to clean them up.”

Earlier, a report from two auditors alerted the pope: “There is a complete absence of transparency in the book-keeping of the Holy See and the Governorate. This lack of transparency makes it impossible to provide a clear estimate of the actual financial status of the Vatican as a whole and of the single entities of which it consists.”

Both of the above quotes come from top secret documents which were shared with Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, confidential information now disclosed in Nuzzi’s book Merchants In The Temple (Henry Holt and Company, 2015). Msgr Lucio Vallejo Balda, a member of the now-disbanded Commission for Reference on the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See, was arrested and charged with leaking the documents.

Francis’ reform efforts, however, are not confined to finances or bureaucracy. He reminded a meeting of the national conference of the Italian Church, some 2200 people from 220 dioceses, in November of 2015 that the Church is always in need of reform (“semper reformanda”). And he clarified that reform of the Church does not end in plans to change structures but necessarily includes “grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, letting yourself be guided by the Spirit.”

He warned the prelates and laity against putting undue trust in structures, organizations and plans, thereby stifling the movement of the Spirit. He pointed to the danger of relying on reason and clear thinking at the expense of losing the tenderness of the flesh of your brother.

He urged the assembly to embrace the church teaching on the preferential option for the poor, to build not walls or borders but meeting squares and field hospitals. :I would like, he said, “an Italian church that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect. I desire a happy church with the face of a mother, who understands, accompanies, caresses.”

In his press conference during the flight back from Africa, Francis acknowledged that some, perhaps many, Catholics believe they have the absolute truth and as a consequence dirty others with calumny, disinformation and evil acts.”Religious fundamentalism,” he said, “is not religion –it’s idolatry."

When on December 8, 2015, Pope Francis opened the holy door marking the beginning of the Year of Mercy, he asked us to think of it as opening ourselves to express the mercy of the Good Samaritan. “Wherever there are people, ”he said, “the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel, and the mercy and forgiveness of God.”

The Holy Year of Mercy is clearly a time of grace. The ministry of Pope Francis is also a kairos moment in Church history.  The Francis effect and the Year of Mercy are reasons to celebrate and give thanks. May both give life, excitement, conversion and joy to the Church and the world!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Bishops' Catacomb Pact on Poverty

Just a month before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said in a radio address that the Church wants to be “the Church of all, especially the Church of the poor.”

Just days into his papacy Pope Francis told a gathering of reporters, “How I would like a Church that is poor, and for the poor.”

It is well-known that Jorge Bergoglio, while serving as auxiliary bishop and then as Archbishop of Buenos Aries had earned the nickname “slum bishop” because of his ministry among the poor and broken members of his archdiocese.

His own lifestyle gives witness to Gospel values: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me” (Mk 120:21). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” (Mt 6:19).

Several times in his apostolic exhortation Gospel Joy Pope Francis focused attention on the world’s poor, urging justice, economic change, alms and spiritual care. He also encouraged our learning from the poor (“They have much to teach us,” #198) and to be cautious of a lifestyle that excludes others (“The culture of prosperity deadens us...” #54).

One of the criticisms leveled against the Second Vatican Council is the little mention of the Church’s ministry to the poor. Only eight of the Council’s 16 documents refer to the “poor,” and the total references are but 24.

Bishops from poor diocese were particularly concerned about the Council’s failure to address the issues of poverty.

Just days before the Council’s final session, about 40 bishops (mostly from Latin America) gathered for Mass in the catacombs of St Domitilla (a series of underground caves in Rome where thousands of early Christians are buried).

Although many of these bishops had been meeting on their own and apart from the Council to discuss the problems of poverty and how the Church should respond to them, on this occasion  (November 16, 1965) the group decided to enter into a pact, agreeing to change their personal lifestyles to better reflect Gospel poverty.

Although the original signed text  is missing Bishop Bonaventura Kloppenberg (a German-born Brazilian bishop who died in 2009) did leave among his papers a complete text of the pact, which he titled “Pact of the Servant and Poor Church.”

It is believed that Archbishop Oscar Romero, of San Salvador, who was martyred in 1980 and beatified by the Church in 2015, was the driving force behind the formation of the so-called “Pact of the Catacombs.”

The opening statement of the pact says, “We bishops assembled in the Second Vatican Council, are conscious of the deficiencies of our lifestyle in terms of evangelical poverty. Motivated by one another in an initiative in which each of us has tried to avoid ambition and presumption, we unite with all our brothers in the episcopacy and rely above all on the grace and strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ and on the prayer of the faithful and the priests in our respective dioceses. Placing ourselves in thought and in prayer before the Trinity, the Church of Christ, and all the priests and faithful of our dioceses, with humility and awareness of our weakness, but also with all the determination and all the strength that God desires to grant us by his grace, we commit ourselves to the following.”

Then comes a series of lifestyle changes and initiatives the signing bishops agree to undertake; among them are:

--we will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.

--we renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing (rich vestments and loud colors) and symbols made of precious metals

--as far as possible we will entrust the financial and material running of our dioceses to a commission of competent lay persons

--we do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship); we prefer to be called by the evangelical name of “Father”

--we will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures, and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons

--when we return to our dioceses we will make these resolutions known to our diocesan priests and  ask them to assist us with their comprehension, their collaboration, and their prayers.

This catacomb pact was developed and signed 50 years ago. The majority of the histories of Vatican II never mention the pact. Most Catholics never heard of it. It is hard to determine whether the agreement had influence on the churches of the signers.

But it appears that Pope Francis knows of the pact, or at least shares in its convictions and provisions. Look at the propositions and then look at Pope Francis’ ministry, and the two fit like hand in glove.

Full text of the Catacomb Pact is available online, e.g.,

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Pope's Leadership: Humble and Unafraid

I’ve been reading Jeffrey A. Krames’ book Lead with Humility, (American Management Association, 2015), subtitled “12 Leadership Lessons From Pope Francis.”

Krames’ analysis of the leadership style of Pope Francis includes a number of observations:     The new pope is not afraid of change, nor does he shy away from shaking up the institution; he is not afraid of disruptive innovation.     Pope Francis believes that leadership is service, and true leaders lead in a spirit of humility.     He lives on the frontier, insisting that leadership requires going out to the periphery, “smelling like the sheep,” decentralizing decision-making.    The man is pragmatic, seeing things as they are not as he would like them to be.

As a young priest Jorge Bergoglio was appointed in 1973 as Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. His leadership in that office has been described as “cautious and conservative.” By the time he left that position the Jesuit community in Argentina was divided into two camps (one pro-Bergoglio, the other anti).

One Jesuit superior said as late as 2013, just after the announcement that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected as Pope Benedict’s successor, “Yes I know Bergoglio. He’s a person who’s caused a lot of problems in the (Jesuit) Society and is highly controversial in his own country.”

In 1992 Bergoglio was ordained a bishop, and became an auxiliary for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aries. It was in this role that he became known as “the bishop of the slums,” and when he became the Archbishop of Buenos Aries in 1998 he continued to give personal care for the poor and forgotten members of society, and lived a humble life-style choosing not to live in the elegant Archbishop’s House, taking the subway and the bus to get around the city, and even cooking his own meals.

In 2013 Cardinal Bergoglio was elected “Bishop of Rome and Vicar of St Peter,” and chose the name Francis, honoring the 13th century saint nicknamed “Il Poverello” or “the Poor One.”

All reports coming from the conclave agree that the electing cardinals wanted a man who could reform the Curia (the Church’s bureaucracy) and restore energy to the Church’s mission. In one of his last official statements, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged that sometimes the Church displays “a disfigured face.” The new pope was expected to address these issues.

In short order Pope Francis called together a Council of Cardinals (nine of them) to assist him in the reform of the Vatican Bank and the Curia in general.

It was a sensational news-break when journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi revealed the contents of documents which Pope Benedict’s butler Paolo Gabriele had photocopied from the pope’s personal desk. Nuzzi summarized the story and the contents in his digital book Ratzinger Was Afraid, confirming rumors about irregularities in the Vatican Bank’s book-keeping and about Curia cover-up.

Nuzzi reported, “The material came from the Secretariat of State, from nunciatures, from individual cardinals and from all over the world…Already from a first glance, the papers reveal something important: the Curia’s first instinct was to cover up anything that could embarrass God’s representatives on earth or simply raise questions and doubts about their actions.”

Just weeks into his pontificate, Pope Francis began to address the issue of reform. In October of 2015 Pope Francis noted that  “While the reform path of some structures of the Roman Curia, working with the Council of Cardinals established by me, September 18, 2013, is progressing according to schedule, I have noticed that some problems have emerged which I intend to address promptly. I would like first of all to reiterate how this transition period is not a time of vacatio legis (a vacation from the law).”

Pope Francis is not afraid. Nor is he hesitant. He expects his directives to be followed. He is aware of those who would obstruct the much needed reforms.

His style of leadership is evident in his summoning the Synod on the Family. He is collaborative and consultative. He believes in using synods as a way of leading the Church, inviting the participation of laity and hierarchy alike. He reflects the spirit of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church.

When a group of cardinals wrote Pope Francis a letter prior to the Synod on the Family (October, 2015) expressing their concerns about conspiracy, fore-gone conclusions, and undermining Church teaching, Pope Francis addressed their concerns openly and to the point, assuring them that there is no conspiracy and that the synod will be conducted in an honest and open debate.

Commenting on the synod, on the infamous letter and on the group of cardinals who wrote it, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said at a conference at Fordham University on November 3, 2015, that the letter writers “felt embarrassed for what they did because it was useless, not necessary.”

Cardinal Rodriguez reminded his audience that Pope Francis is a man of prayer. “He knows what he is doing. He’s not just acting without reflection, without praying over the steps he is taking.” And addressing the concerns of some Catholics who feel that they must reject any reforms of Catholic practice regarding sex and marriage, Cardinal Rodriguez  explained that the synod  focused not on doctrinal change but on pastoral practice, which is subject to change: “I say it is necessary to be open to the Holy Spirit because the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, not by the attitudes of men or women or pastors of the Church.”

It isn’t just because they both share the same name that we find similarities between the influence of Francis of Assisi and that of Francis of Argentina. Author Jon M. Sweeney maintains in his book When St Francis Saved The Church (Ave Maria Press, 2014) that “(St) Francis’s conversion led prophetically and organically to a conversion of the Christian faith itself.” The life-style, the focus on Gospel values, the eagerness to "repair" the church are common elements in the ministry and spirituality of both men.

Sweeney writes that anyone who has been paying attention to Pope Francis can note “the changing atmosphere in the Catholic Church today. Since he was elected in March 2013, there has been fresh air blowing into old and staid ways of doing things….Something is happening. Is it too bold to suggest that another Francis may just be saving the Church again in the twenty-first century?”

It was not without reason that when FortuneMagazine listed "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders" in 2014 at the top of the list was Pope Francis!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Synods Are Usually Messy

Besides being one, holy, catholic and apostolic, the Church is also messy –it is the fifth, even if unspoken, mark of the Church.

Controversy and conflict were present from the very beginning.  Some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles who chose to accept Jesus as Lord had to follow the religious practices of Judaism.  Paul and Barnabas challenged that requirement. The so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was an initial effort to settle the matter and restore peace.

Not long after, Paul and Barnabas had an argument about whether John Mark should accompany them on their missionary journey, and “so sharp was their disagreement that they separated” (cf Acts 15:39), Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus, Paul taking Silas to Syria.

It ought not surprise us that such messiness should be characteristic of the Church when we acknowledge that the Church is made up of human beings and especially if we accept the imagery of the Church’s being born from the wounded side of Christ!

Pope Francis  is dedicated to the synodality of the Church. He called it “a constitutive dimension of the Church” and “the more appropriate interpretive framework to understand the Hierarchical ministry.”  He quoted St John Chrysostom’s observation that “the church and synod are synonymous.” He affirmed these insights on October 17, 2015, in a speech to the 270 bishops and lay persons participating in the Vatican Synod addressing the problems of family life.

He reminded the assembly that the word synod means “walking together.”  He said that from the start of his papacy he intended to enhance the Synod of Bishops, describing it as “one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council.”

Pope Francis knows that synods are messy. They have been part of the Church’s history and mode of operating since New Testament times. The Council of Jerusalem in 54 AD  can be considered a synod, as well as the gathering of bishops described by the early Church Fathers such as Clement I, St Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons.

When the bishops gathered in Nicea  in  325 AD for what we generally consider the First Ecumenical Council they agreed that “it would be well for synods to be held each year in each province…one before Lent…the second after the season of autumn” (canon 5).

Current Canon Law addresses the matter of synods, explaining in canons 342-348 the responsibilities and authority of the Synod of Bishops, and in canons 460-68 the nature and purpose of Diocesan Synods.

In essence the Synod of Bishops is convoked by the pope, meets to foster unity between the pope and the bishops, offers counsel  to the pope in matters of faith, morals and discipline, and “considers questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342).

A Diocesan Synod is convoked by the bishop and meets to foster the unity of the local Church and offer counsel to the bishop.

Pope Francis thinks of the Synod of Bishops as a means for keeping alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. Synodality helps the Church stay on the right path.

Both the Synod and Pope Francis have been subjected to negative criticism. Some Catholics fear that bringing up certain topics for discussion may challenge Church teaching and hierarchical authority. They think Pope Francis is undermining the magisterium.

(It has been somewhat amusing to hear critics who insisted Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XIV must be followed and obeyed to the letter because "after all, he is the pope," and yet do not accord Pope Francis equal status and credibility.) 

Pope Francis, however, recognizes that conversations about basic teachings and especially about discipline are necessary to keep the Church faithful to the Gospel and effective in its ministry in the modern world. He is not dismayed by controversy and or by opinions expressed by the participants. All of the discussions are geared to arriving at the truth.

Some want the pope to preside over a synod as a conductor leads an orchestra. All musicians have the same score, and although they may play different instruments they are united under the maestro’s baton. A synod, however, is not a symphony orchestra, and if the sounds are at times cacophonous and unpleasant, it is the pope’s responsibility to bring the disjointed sounds to a harmonious conclusion.

As Pope Francis put it to the bishops, “The synodal process starts by listening to the people…the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome…”

Pope Francis confirmed that a synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro (with the pope and under the pope), and this is what guarantees unity. He said, “In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, is ‘the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.’”

He told them explicitly that the pope is the supreme witness of the whole faith of the Church, “the guarantor of obedience and conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church” –it is not, he said, a matter of his personal convictions.

It seems to me that “prophets of doom” who annoyed Pope John XXIII when the Church was preparing for the Second Vatican Council have re-appeared as “nay-sayers” opposing Pope Francis and the synod.

Many in the media and some in the Church do not understand the synodal process. It is an opportunity to look at issues and problems frankly, boldly, honestly –it is time for parrhesia, free speech. Disagreements, challenges, and rumors of conspiracy are to be expected.  But those who understand the process do not lose heart. The Holy Spirit is active, providing order in spite of seeming chaos.

The Church is not a museum, but a work in process. It is still developing, still being refined, still in need of reform. A synod  promotes the walk; the participants do not necessarily agree on the path to take; the Holy Spirit provides direction.

The marks of the Church remain: one, holy, catholic, apostolic and messy. God is not finished with us. We are still on the road --walking together.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pope Francis, Collegiality, Consultation

One of the major issues to surface at the Second Vatican Council was episcopal collegiality, the concept that the bishops as successors of the apostles share with the Pope and never apart from him “supreme and full authority over the universal Church” (Lumen gentium 22).

Bishops, then, “are not branch managers of local offices of the Holy See” (as Father John O’Malley puts it in his What Happened at Vatican II, p. 304). Their power comes through their ordination.

A vocal minority of the Council’s members opposed discussion of collegiality and were successful in preventing the Council from considering the matter head-on. None of the documents developed any detailed structure for putting collegiality into practice.

Pope Francis, however, has not shied away from the issue. His calling together the Group of Nine to advise him on reform of the Curia is a practical expression of  the collegiality of  bishops.

Another example of Pope Francis’ acceptance of collegiality is his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Gospel Joy.

This extraordinary document was motivated by the request of the bishops who gathered in 2012 for the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Although the texts of the synod are considered confidential and are not published since the synod is considered “consultative,” Pope Benedict XVI agreed that a series of fifty-eight propositions coming from the synod of bishops could be released. One of the propositions reflected the request of the Synod Fathers to “consider the opportuneness of issuing a document on transmitting the Christian faith through a new evangelization.”

The focus of the synod had been “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian faith.” Pope Francis responded to the request. His Evangelii Gaudium is truly a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation.” Just a glance through the Exhortation’s notes reveals the many, many times Pope Francis refers to the synod and its more than fifty propositions.

Pope Francis acknowledges the synod’s request in section 16 of his exhortation: “I am reaping the rich fruits of the Synod’s labors.” And he continues, “In addition I have sought the advice from a number of people…I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’”

It is clear that Pope Francis was not simply repeating what the synod had proposed (he included many of his own convictions and dreams), but his exhortation reflects the input of the college of bishops and of the People of God in general.

Pope Francis believes in collegiality, consultation, and openness to the advice of others.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pope Francis as Comforting and Afflicting Prophet

It is commonly held that the cardinal electors who chose Jorge Bergoglio to be the new pope were giving him the mandate to reform the Church, with iummediate attention to the Curia. Pope Francis took on that task, notably in forming his “Group of Nine,” cardinals from around the world who form an advisory (and investigative) panel to help him in his role as leader of the Catholic Church.

His efforts to reform the Curia include not simply structural changes but spiritual conversion as well. He famously reminded the curial  staff  just before Christmas in 2014 that they must not think of themselves as “lords of the manor” but as servants, and he went on to an examination of conscience listing 15 temptations (he called them “la malattia” or “the disease’) which they should avoid now and in the future.

Reform of the Curia is not complete. There is a staying power in the curial structure that resists change. Some critics of the Curia during the Second Vatican Council said that bureaucrats had a not-so-secret refrain among themselves: “Councils come and go, popes die, but the Curia goes on!”  Reform of the Vatican Bank, however, with significant structural changes appears imminent.

From the start of his papacy, however, Pope Francis has been as much concerned about reform of the world as he is about reform of  the Vatican and the Church at large. He consistently urges Christians to go out to the peripheries –to places on the margins of society, to people suffering from conflicted lives and broken hearts.

His first official journey was to Lampadusa, the small Sicilian island which has become the port of entry for refugees fleeing poverty and political turmoil in Africa. Thousands of these migrants have drowned  as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean in over-crowded boats and small rafts. In a special Mass on the island Pope Francis welcomed the migrants, mourned those who have died in their attempt to improve their lives, thanked those who were caring for the refugees, and warned the world at large about “the globalization of indifference.”  He also asked pardon for "those, whose decisions at a global level have created the conditions which have led us to this drama."

Pope Francis’ remarks about climate and economy have generated significant critical responses. For example, radio’s talk show guru Rush Limbaugh has judged Pope Francis to be guilty of Marxism because of the pope’s condemnation of  “unfettered capitalism.” El Rushbo  labeled as “communism” Pope Francis’ concern about man-made global warming. He also took offense at the pope’s remark that “if Christians don't dig deep and generously open their wallets, they do not have genuine faith.”

Retracing his steps Limbaugh did admit, “Now, maybe this is not communism, I don't know, but it's scary, and it's a little out there.  Remember what all this is related to is climate change, folks.  Every bit of this is related to climate change.”  Then, unable to let go of it, he added, “A man of religion, the Vicar of Christ, seems to have fallen in with the communist way of doing things: Controlling mankind through command-and-control governments backed by police or military power. This is what the pope is essentially calling for.  The problem is, human beings suffer under collectivist or communist regimes.  They do not prosper.”

Clearly Pope Francis has irritated one of America’s staunchest defenders of capitalism, one of its most out-spoken critics of made-made climate change. Pope Francis has done what he intended; he or more accurately his message has challenged the mindset of those who are comfortable in their convictions and who resent their values being questioned.

Pope Francis is reaching out to the world. He is exercising the pope’s role as a prophet. He is coming to the defense of those who are impoverished, who are victims of injustice, who do not have protection of their God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I do not know whether the pope is right in his judgment about global warming; I doubt that capitalism is in itself an evil economic system.  But I do believe that Pope Francis looks at the world at large and is conscious of environmental and economic conditions far different from and more depraved than what we see and experience in our part of the world.

The role of a prophet, it is said, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Pope Francis’ namesake did an admirable job of doing that very thing. The little friar of Assisi challenged the habits of society in celebrating Christmas when he said, “If I could speak to the emperor I would ask that a general law be made that all who can should scatter corn and grain along the roads so that the birds might have an abundance of food on the day of such great solemnity, especially our sisters the larks” (Celano, II, 200).

I suspect Francis of Assisi might be labeled a Marxist for suggesting that when the weather was cold he would ask a rich man to give him a cloak, and would tell him, “I  will accept this from you with this understanding, that you do not expect ever to have it back again.” And then, when Francis met a poor man, he would clothe him with what he had received with such joy and gladness (Celano, I, 76).

When we are unaware of the conditions in which some people must live we are not likely to feel compassion for them or want to change the structures that cause their misery. For example, many of us think of human trafficking as a problem in other parts of the world, but when we learn that more than 17,500 are trafficked in the United States every year (stats from US Department of Justice), then we may become concerned enough to do something about this modern form of slavery (trading people for forced labor or prostitution) happening especially in California and Texas.

If we learn that more than 10% of the US population lives in poverty, we may blame them for laziness, but when we encounter that poverty in the inner city homeless or the Appalachian shack dwellers, we may respond differently.

As I see it, Pope Francis is engaged in raising consciousness. I can always find arguments to temper my response. I know from being a pastor in a poor neighborhood that some of the poor play the game, that some are unequivocally lazy, that some take advantage of the government dole or the generosity of donors. I also know that there are many others who through bad choices or no-fault of their own are truly poor –economically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually.

I found adults who were abused as children and that abuse has left a permanent scar. I found people struggling to make things better for themselves, but found the bureaucracy of the welfare system a nightmare of forms, appointments, and regulations. (You have an appointment for 8 am, you do not have a car and must take the bus, you have two young children who need to board the school bus at 8:30 am –What do you do about the kids? What do you do if the bus route doesn’t go where you need to be? What do you do if you are late and you need to re-schedule?)

Pope Francis has undertaken the role of prophet. In that role he will irritate some, provide comfort for those in need, inform those who never thought of a given situation, and touch people of good will. Whether you believe in global warming or not, his message urges care for the environment –which is a good thing. Whether or not you buy his criticism of capitalism, his message urges you to be careful not to put money over people --which is a good thing.

On his return flight from Latin America, Pope Francis said he is aware of the negative reaction his comments about capital;ism have generated in the United States, and he agreed that he must listen to his critics and enter into dialogue with them. "If I don't dialogue with those who criticize," he explained, " then I have no right to express an opinion." He said he intends to study these criticisms before his visit to the United States and Cuba in September in order to prepare for the dialogue.

All Christians are called by their baptism to share in Christ’s role of being priest, prophet and servant leader. Pope Francis is modeling the Christian’s response. Right now he is emphasizing the prophetic role. The afflicted are being comforted, the comfortable are being afflicted. That’s what happens when prophets come on the scene.

Friday, July 10, 2015

What Am I To Believe?

What are we supposed to believe when we get conflicting messages? One group tells me we’re experiencing global warming; NASA web site, for example, says the global temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.

Other sources say that the Antarctic seas ice is expanding (its melting has been seen by “warmists” as a sign of global warming); even the International Panel on Climate Change (a group intent on proving global warming) recently acknowledged  “a pause” in global warming.

And further, if there is global warming, is it caused by humans? USGS  (the  U S Geological Survey) maintains that  volcanic gases like sulfur dioxide can cause global cooling, while volcanic carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, has the potential to promote global warming.

Speaking of volcanoes, a team of scientists published in Nature Communications (a science journal) that there has been a slowing down in global warming because of the lessening of incoming solar radiation  between 2008 and 2011 due to increased volcanic activity.

What am I to believe?

Some critics of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development charge that the US Bishops have used funds from this annual collection for extreme left wing activities; ACORN, for example, used to be one of the collection’s recipients of financial support. CCHD no longer supports ACORN.

The USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) website defends the fund drive and its allocation, saying, “Throughout its history, CCHD and CCHD grantees have at times been subject to organized, exploitative attacks. Although sometimes these attacks originate in a mis-perception of the  mission of the CCHD to empower communities in their work to overcome injustice and economic marginalization, at times they derive from opposition to the Church’s teaching and work in the field of charity and justice.” The response doesn't really answer the question.

What am I to believe?

Coffee? Is it good or bad for me? Wine? Should I imbibe or not?  Immigration amnesty? Good or bad idea? The “Stainless Banner,” the second national flag of the Confederate States of America? Racist or simply historic heritage? Same-sex marriage? A natural right or a perversion of marriage?

What am I to believe?

Books on the spiritual life recognize that even the best people are sometimes conflicted, not knowing whether a spirit or impulse is from God or from self, or even from the devil. Possible resolution of the uncertainty lies in the practice known as “discernment of spirits.” Maybe the spiritual discernment process is applicable to discernment of other conflicts as well..

The path to discerning what God wants, the experts in spiritual matters say, may be found in applying the fourfold elements of the art of discernment, namely, prayer, study, self-knowledge, and the removal of obstacles.

Prayer, putting oneself in God’s presence and being open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is an obvious way of trying to discern whether an impulse or direction is of divine origin. Study of issues and judging the weight of the opinions and results applicable to a given situation are elementary. Looking at oneself (assessing one’s own prejudgments, opinions, experiences, and expertise) is more than relevant in the discernment process. And removing obstacles which stand in the way of arriving at the truth (humility over pride) is essential.

Yet even when people seek the truth, they may not be able to arrive at certainty. For many people, living with ambiguity and uncertainty is intolerable. This kind of frustration, not to mention the effort, energy, and enterprise it takes to sort out fact from fiction, leads some to divorce themselves from the work and simply yield to what seems the majority position.

For Catholics matters of faith and morals are usually spelled out by the Church’s teaching authority. Reliance on this wisdom of the ancients and the assurance of the guidance of the Spirit are helpful and consoling. Yet even here it is a matter of faith rather than knowledge.

What am I to believe?

To “believe” means to “cherish” –the root of the English word “believe” is “lieben” to love! In one sense, faith is acceptance of an idea; in its purest form, faith is acceptance of a person –for Christians that person is Christ.

We can come to know about Christ through the teaching of the Church, through our reading of and reflection on the Sacred Scriptures. But it is in knowing Christ, in the personal and intimate  relationship with him, that faith takes on its most dynamic and powerful expression. In this way we know whom to believe even if we do not always know what to believe.

This relationship with Christ does not of itself settle the matter of global warming or whether one should support the Campaign for Human Development. It does not give the definitive answer to many of life’s contentious issues, but this relationship with Christ sheds light, points to the truth, and perhaps of equal importance it  allows one to live peacefully without knowing all the answers.

I think there is wisdom in Thomas Merton's observation in Thoughts In Solitude: “Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them truly trivial by comparison.”

It’s not that we stop trying to find answers or give up trying to arrive at truth, but neither do we lose peace of mind when the answer eludes us and the truth is beyond our grasp. In that same book is the so-called “Merton Prayer,” a portion of which acknowledges, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

And so I conclude: I don’t always know what I am to believe, but that's OK --maybe I don’t need to know all the answers after all.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Same-Sex Weddings v. Tax Exempt Status

Someone asked me recently, “Do you think churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to witness same-sex marriages?”

I answered, “I don’t know, but I’m convinced that the tax-exempt status will be challenged on that grounds.”

From what I understand, the Internal Revenue Code in section 501 (c) (3) has for decades exempted churches if they are “organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes” and if none of its revenues “inure to any private shareholders or individual.”

Another provision, however, was added in 1954 when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson successfully pushed for an amendment to the code which prohibited tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This Johnson Amendment means churches may not engage in political activities without risking the loss of their tax exempt status. In effect the IRS is permitted to censor a pastor’s sermon.

Loss of the tax-exempt status would mean that churches would have to pay taxes on their income, and donors could no longer declare their contributions as deductions on their tax returns. Title 26 USC #170 allows deductions for federal income tax purposes for some donors who make charitable contributions to most 501 (c) (3) organizations. That deduction could be eliminated for donors who contribute to churches refusing gay weddings.

The loss of the tax-exempt classification could challenge a church’s continued operation. Loss of tax-exemption would likely result in reduction of salaries for church staffs and church schools --any employee from music directors to youth ministers, from principals to teachers’ aides.

The tax-exempt status for churches was granted in light of the so-called “separation of church and state” concept in the First Amendment.

In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an appeal from a property owner who wanted to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from giving tax exemption to religious organizations. In the Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York casethe court ruled that granting such exemptions “tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.” The basic issue before the court was whether tax-exemption could be construed as the establishment of religion, thus violating the First Amendment. Some were arguing that granting tax-exempt status was in fact "establishing" religion.

The court in deciding this case acknowledged that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was not precisely drawn, that its purpose was to establish an objective not to write a statute. For this reason the court’s opinions are formulated on a case-by-case basis. The court upheld New York.

In 1819 Chief Justice John Marshall had made the observation that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” –an argument he used in the McCulloch v. Maryland case over whether states or other forms of local government could by taxation impede the implementation of constitutional laws enacted by the Federal Congress. The court decided that states could not tax the Federal government nor impede Federal legislation.

The issue of freedom of religion and the observation that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” may be pertinent in deciding whether the IRS could revoke tax-exempt status from churches which reject same-sex marriage.

In 1983 the U. S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Bob Jones University v. United States ruled that the Internal Revenue Service could legally revoke the tax-exempt classification of a religious university if that university’s practices were contrary to compelling public policy, which in this case was the university’s policy that single Black students could not be involved in interracial dating nor advocate interracial  marriage.

When the IRS revoked the university’s tax-exempt status, the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the court declared that that there was a common law/public interest requirement in the IRS statute granting tax-exemption and that the university’s policy violated that statute. Chief Justice Burger said that “the Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education…which substantially outweighs whatever burden of denial of tax exemption places on (Bob Jones University’s) exercise of their religious beliefs.”

The court held that “Whatever may be the rationale for such private school’s policies, racial discrimination in education is contrary to public policy. Racially discriminatory educational institutions cannot be viewed as conferring a public benefit within the above ‘charitable’ concept or within the congressional intent underlying 501 (c) (3).”

The Court did clarify that in this opinion the court had dealt only with religious schools and not with churches or purely religious institutions, but in today’s climate could a priest or diocese or the US Catholic Conference be sued for refusing to witness a same-sex marriage? Bakers and caterers have been sued for refusing service to gay couples.

Someone asked me recently, “Do you think churches will lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to witness same-sex marriages?”

I answered, “I don’t know, but I’m convinced that tax-exempt status will be challenged on that grounds. I suspect the United States Catholic Conference already has its lawyers formulating its case. I think it only a matter of time before court proceedings will begin and likely run to the level of the U. S. Supreme Court.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Same-sex Marriage and The Wall of Separation

The United States’ tradition of separation of Church and State rests upon the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Concerned that the state constitution of Connecticut did not explicitly affirm support for religious freedom as guaranteed by the federal constitution, the Baptist Association of Danbury, in October of 1801, wrote to the recently elected President Thomas Jefferson to ask him to confirm his support for religious liberty.

It was in his reply to the Baptist Association that Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation” (a description not found in the Constitution per se). He confirmed his conviction that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”

He went on, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

The First Amendment is generally construed as a guarantee of the people’s freedom to follow their religious preferences without governmental interference. In effect the framers were saying that religion is none of the government’s business. 

This guarantee of freedom of religion, however, has been subjected to additional analysis and interpretation. Today the wall of separation not only protects religion from State interference, but also protects the State from religious interference.

Many of those who protest legalized abortion defend the unborn’s right to life on the basis of their religious conviction that life comes from God, is sacred for that reason, and deserves protection from conception onward. But if there is a wall of separation between Church and State, then arguments based on religion are not admissible in the polity of the courts.

Many of those who oppose same-sex marriage argue that such unions are a violation of God’s intention that marriage be between one man and one woman. But if there is a wall of separation between Church and State, then arguments based on religion are not admissible in the polity of the courts.

In the current climate, appeals to religious convictions carry no weight in the determination of what is or is not legal in the judgment of many (a majority?) of our federal or state courts.

In 1965 theologian Karl Rahner, an expert and consultant for the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, predicted that the Church of the future “will be a Diaspora-Church” and its mission and message will no longer find the support of “homogenous public opinion.” His use of the term “diaspora” implies that the Church will be a stranger in a strange land, like the Jews of old often were.

Rahner recognized that the era of a Christian Europe has ended, that Europe’s culture and society no longer pre-suppose that most people will be guided by overtly Christian principles. He could have added that the same would be true in the United States, that soon most citizens (or at least their Statesmen) will no longer be guided by religion-based principles in civil government.

Even if it can be shown that many if not most of our founding fathers were not particularly religious people, there remains nonetheless that acknowledgment that their philosophy of freedom and government were shaped largely by the then prevailing standards of the established Christianity of Europe.

Even Jefferson acknowledged that the foundation for preserving freedom had to be the common recognition that freedom is of divine origin. He wrote: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” (Notes on the State of  Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, query 18).

Times have changed. As has been noted for several decades, the concept of “freedom of religion” has now led to the concept of “freedom from religion.” The amendment which precluded the establishment of religion has become a ban on the influence of religion on the legislation and judgment of civil government.

In his response to the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, decision requiring all states to license and recognize same-sex marriage, Archbishop Joseph B. Kurtz as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops labeled the court’s judgment “a tragic error.”

The Archbishop argued the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage on two grounds: the one religious, the other natural.

The Catholic religion opposes same-sex marriage as a violation of God’s intention as found in the biblical account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2:24 (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body”). Further, the Archbishop appeals to the New Testament, noting that “Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. As Catholic bishops we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and act according to this truth.”

The Archbishop’s explanation was primarily an assurance to Catholics that the Church’s teaching about marriage remains firm, that the Court’s decision does not displace Catholic faith or practice regarding marriage. He encouraged Catholics to persevere in the Church’s effort to protect marriage as it has been understood for millennia even in the face of disagreement, hatred or persecution from their neighbors.

In addition the Archbishop appealed to nature as a criterion for rejecting same-sex marriage, noting that “The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female…Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children. The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home.”

He sees the Church’s understanding of marriage as an “unchanging truth…rooted in the immutable nature of the human person and confirmed by divine revelation.”

Arguments based on religion or religious convictions will have little or no influence in either the legislature or the courts of our land in the present climate. Opposition to same-sex marriage and protection of the traditional understanding of marriage will have to be based on nature and experience.

The Court’s Roe v Wade decision of 1973 “protecting a woman’s right to abortion” has been the law of the land for nearly 50 years. Religious arguments are not likely to overturn the court’s ruling –at least in the current climate of “freedom from religion.” But after nearly five decades of the experience, support for destroying human life under the guise of freedom of choice is eroding. Attention is turning from the rights of the mother to the rights of the child –and science has gone a long way in supporting the realization that life in the womb is human life.

Arguing against abortion on religious grounds will have little effect in our courts, but arguing for protection of life in the womb on the grounds of our American testament that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (truths which we declared to be “self-evident”), then we have a legal, natural basis for overturning the 1973 decision.

I suspect that something similar is applicable to the court’s decision about same-sex marriage. There will be a time when this “new found freedom” will be celebrated and pursued with abandon, but over time the flaws (“tragic error’) of the decision will become more and more manifest.

If same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s plan, as the Church’s magisterium holds, then the violation of that plan will produce many unwanted consequences. If our nation as a whole were to experience a conversion back to God,  religious appeals opposing same-sex marriage could be effective in repealing the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015. Until that conversion takes place opposition to the decision will have to be based on secular, constitutional and natural (experiential) argumentation.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 vote, saying that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, that “the Constitution grants them that right.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion, warning that the court’s decision is a “threat to American democracy” and Justice John Roberts wrote that the decision “has nothing to do with the Constitution.”

As we now struggle to see which right is more important in the abortion controversy (the mother’s or the child’s), so we shall struggle with which right is primary in the case of same-sex marriage. In the effort to protect the rights of gay people, have we violated the rights of traditional society and family?

In the meantime we find one of the Church’s basic convictions about life, family, and God’s plan put to the test. It remains to be seen (over the long haul) how the Supreme Court's decision will play out in society.

St Augustine said, "Love God and do as you want." The Courts say, "Ignore God and do as you please".  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Laudato Si" and the Precautionary Principle

Not everyone accepts that we are experiencing “global warming” and many question (if there is global warming) whether human beings are responsible for it.

In his encyclical Laudato si  Pope Francis said, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” and “…a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gasses (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (cf #23).

The problem with interpreting the facts and what the pope says here focuses on his use of the restrictive term “a number of scientific studies.” Such a reference suggests there is not a consensus.

In a different area of science, for example, there are a number of scientific studies which propose the existence of gigantic halos of dark matter which hold the Bullet Cluster together, while a number of other scientific studies propose MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) as the reason for the strong curvature around the two galaxies in this cluster collision. Which thesis are we to accept?

Concern about our earthly environment is obviously more immediate and important to us than theories about the Bullet Cluster, but the question remains whether the available scientific data about global warming are sufficient to draw a reliable conclusion.

In previous writings on safeguarding the environment, the Catholic Church’s social doctrine proposed a solution when dealing with controverted opinions or theses. It suggested using the "precautionary principle." The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004, explained:

The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the “precautionary principle,” which does not mean applying rules but certain guidelines aimed at managing the situation of uncertainty (469).

The precautionary principle promotes prudent policies, comparing risks and benefits and discerning various possible alternatives. “The circumstances of uncertainty and provisional solutions,” the Compendium continues, “make it particularly important that the decision-making process be transparent” (cf 469).

While Pope Francis addresses many other issues related to protection of the environment (we  know the results of pollution of rivers, the smog of cities, the de-forestation of whole countries), it is likely that these issues will be passed over and the focus, especially in politically correct circles, will be on man-made global warming. Laudatio si is about much more, and chief among its concerns is the effect of the environment on people, especially the poor.

It may seem a stretch to suggest that we have something to learn from Native Americans and their attitude toward the environment, but respect for God’s creation is a most helpful step in preserving, protecting and promoting the environment for ourselves and future generations.

The traditions of the First Americans hold that everything the creator made has a spirit, and that all things are related and all things are sacred. Even the Bible notes the intimate relationship between human beings and the soil: “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground” (cf Gen 2:7). Our English word “human” derives from the Latin “homo” (man), which may in turn derive from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European word meaning “earthling.” And therefore (forgive me if this seems a stretch) to be humane is to have feelings for the earth from which we were made.

Larry Zimmerman in his Native North America (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 1996) writes, “Most Native peoples respect the earth as the source of an endless cycle of generation, destruction and regeneration, through which all things are believed to pass. The view of the earth as a powerful nurturing force is expressed in the Native concept of Mother Earth…” (p 78).

Issues about water, bio-diversity, and eco-systems are not unrelated to the quality of human life and the breakdown of human society. Pope Francis has looked at these issues through the lens of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and offers his perspective. He does not speak as a scientist; he speaks as a religious leader and a prophet. He is convinced that human beings have responsibility for the proper use of the world’s resources. He asks people of good will to reflect upon the environmental problems we face, to honor creation as a sacred gift from God, and respond in a way that is motivated by responsibility and respect.

Even if we cannot agree on whether global warming is man-made, we can agree on use of the precautionary principle and continue our study and our prudent use of natural resources.