Tag Archives: Catholic

Catholic hierarchy out of touch

While watching the Republican primary season play out, one exit poll item caught my eye.  Rick Santorum, the self-avowed Roman Catholic traditionalist, repeatedly lost the Catholic vote … to a Mormon!  Similarly, during the flap over contraception coverage in the Affordable Health Care Act that riled up the Catholic Bishops, public polls showed 60% of Roman Catholics supported the provision.  Clearly, there appears to be a disconnect between the hard-line conservatism of the bishops/hierarchy and the folks in the pews.

Recently a gay man who served on the board of Catholic Charities quit in a highly-public rebuke of Cardinal Dolan of the archdiocese of New York.

A day before Easter, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic archdiocese faced a challenge to his stance on gay rights: the resignation of a church charity board member who says he’s “had enough” of the cardinal’s attitude.

Joseph Amodeo told The Associated Press on Saturday that he quit the junior board of the city’s Catholic Charities after Cardinal Timothy Dolan failed to respond to a “call for help” for homeless youths who are not heterosexual.

Today, Amodeo, the gay man, speaks out in a Huff Post blog entitled “The Pulpit vs. the Pews”.  He basically makes the case that there is strong and widespread support for gays within the Catholic laity and the hierarchy is simply out of touch.  His post begins with a personal story from a few years ago; his role as a Christian educator was questioned and resulted in a public hearing in the church.

The priest called a meeting of the parish on a weeknight and asked that anyone who had concerns related to my teaching should speak up publicly. The night of the meeting, I entered a packed Church and slowly made my way to a pew where I sat next to my father. As the meeting began, one-by-one congregants rose and expressed their real concern: why this was even an issue. The reality is that my experience from nearly a decade ago is representative of the vast majority of Roman Catholics. We live in a Church that is called to welcome and affirm people’s humanity and identity without exception.

Amodeo also blames the press for assuming that bishops speak for the people.

It further saddens me to think that the voices of some bishops are seen as representative of all Catholic people when in reality the vast majority of Catholics support their LGBT brothers and sisters, as evidenced by a growing number of studies. A recent study released by GLAAD showed more than 50 percent of Catholic voices presented in the media offer a negative view on LGBT issues when in reality a majority of American Catholics support LGBT equality.

How is it that the Catholic hierarchy has lost touch?  Twenty years ago, I was in the midst of graduate studies with the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey and University School of Theology.  Over lunch or coffee, I heard a recurring lament from the Catholic grad students … that the current pope was appointing reactionary bishops and the progressive spirit of Vatican II was being reversed.  That process has continued under the current pope.  Thus, since 1978, there has been a remaking of the entire episcopate under two conservative popes.

Conservative Lutheran denominations such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Synod (WELS) have stridently anti-Catholic histories.  During her failed campaign, Republican Michelle Bachman resigned from her Wisconsin Synod congregation over the embarrassment that it remained WELS official policy that the papacy was the anti-Christ.  Thus, it is a fascinating sign of the times that a group of Missouri Synod pastors, congregations, the LCMS district superintendent, and a seminary professor will march to the steps of the Fort Wayne Cathedral to show support for the local Catholic bishop and diocese in their opposition to the contraceptive portions of Obamacare.

Right wing politics makes strange bedfellows.

Roman Catholic & Lutheran interaction: “grass roots ecumenism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native Americans and Christianity circa 2010

Without researching actual statistics, I doubt whether the percentage of native Americans within any Lutheran denomination is significant.  Although the ELCA has general goals for minority membership, the reality remains that most of us are descended from northern  European immigrants.  The reasons are primarily historical; when our ancestors arrived to make America their new home, they were not here as missionaries, and their communities remained insular.  My home congregation in Upsala, Minnesota, formed by Swedes in the 1880’s, continued with services in the language of the homeland until the 1920’s.  Even the small pockets of Danes in the neighborhood were largely outsiders.  When my grandfather Julius (the son of Swedish immigrants, and the youngest, rebellious sibling) married grandmother Olga (daughter of Danish immigrants) around the time of WWI, it was a mixed marriage.

Not so with Roman Catholics and Anglicans who came to the midwest first as missionaries to native Americans, and thus there are vestigial pockets of Catholic and Anglican native Americans.  This was especially obvious to me as I attended several Episcopal Diocesan conventions this fall.  In the Minnesota delegation and the northern Wisconsin Diocese of Fond du Lac, the Ojibwe lay and clergy presence was significant.  Two years ago, an Ojibwe priest was a finalist for the office of presiding Bishop for the Minnesota diocese.

Native American dancersTo what extent should native American cultural and religious heritage be reflected in their Christian religious practices?  Earlier this fall, I attended a weekend religious retreat consisting of mostly Lutherans.  A young man, a native American from Minneapolis, who had been raised Lutheran by his adoptive parents, was asked to offer a prayer.  He did so with a native American chant, which I found refreshing and spiritual, but I wondered how others received it.  No one said anything.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune newspaper (the leading Minnesota daily) contained an article about a small Roman Catholic congregation located within the native American community of Minneapolis whose members are nearly all native American.  Seems the local archdiocese is coming down hard on certain of their rituals:

Buffalo hide adorns the altar. Sage is burned to help cleanse the heart, soul and mind. Ojibwe and Lakota languages are used in many of the prayers and songs. Traditional Indian elements like these have been part of the worship service for decades at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, the only Twin Cities Catholic parish with a predominantly Indian congregation.

Founded in 1975, Gichitwaa Kateri has added Indian elements to the Catholic ceremony for nearly two decades. A lodge made of willow, structured like a dome-shaped Ojibwe wigwam, contains a bundle that holds sacred things, including the Eucharist. Traditional Ojibwe medicines such as tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass are used as regular parts of the Sunday Eucharist. Drums and prayers and songs in Ojibwe and Lakota are also prominent.

The future use of Indian practices, however, is being questioned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which temporarily suspended mass at the church last month after conflict arose over the use of specialized wine.

The congregation had been using mustum, a grape juice with minimal fermentation, as part of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Not only does mustum have linkages to native American culture, it also is safe for the numerous recovering alcoholics within the congregation.  Not good enough, says the archdiocese, and mass has been suspended at the congregation.

Maureen Headbird, 54, a church trustee, said the nearly 100 members of the tight-knit parish would be greatly saddened and disappointed if their church lost its distinctive elements, because they are an important part of their Indian heritage.

“We want to make sure our community stays the way it is,” said Headbird, who is Indian and was raised Catholic. “When you come to our parish, you really have to have an open mind to see what we do. Sometimes that doesn’t work out for everybody.”

Midweek miscellany

Bavarian Lutheran Church

Lutherans in the United States and Canada trace their lineage through immigrants from northern Europe.  Of course, Luther was German, and the Lutheran Reformation centered in the regions around the Baltic Sea.  As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), easily the largest and most moderate of the American Lutheran denominations, moves toward full inclusion for gays and lesbians, similar processes are underway in the traditional Lutheran churches of northern Europe.  Sweden has a lesbian bishopA bishop in Finland has announced an openness to “gender neutral marriage”.  Now, the Lutheran church in conservative Bavaria announces that gay clergy partners who have entered into a legal civil union may live together in church owned parsonages:

Gay and lesbian Lutheran ministers in the conservative German state of Bavaria may live with their partners in parish parsonages, but only if they enter into a state-sanctioned civil union … According to church officials, six Bavarian ministers already live in same-sex civil unions.

Gay student editorial banned at Catholic high School

Sean SimonsonSean Simonson is a senior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a Catholic school in St. Louis Park, Minn. His editorial entitled “Life as a gay teenager” drew heated comments in the student newspaper, The Knight Errant, and the article was removed.  Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reprinted the article in full.  Here is a portion:

I have considered suicide. Yes, I have considered taking my own life. Unlike six other boys recently in the news, I never took the steps to follow through on my dark thoughts, but, unfortunately, I can understand what drove them to. Because I know what it’s like to be a gay teenager.

Imagine going through adolescence: hormones raging, body changing, and relationships that go a little deeper than friendship developing. Now, add on being gay.

Don’t believe being different is difficult? Try going through a day in the life of a gay teen.

Every day you hear someone use your sexuality — a part of you that, no matter how desperately you try, you cannot change — as a negative adjective. That hurts.

You fear looking the wrong way in the locker room and offending someone. Politicians are allowed to debate your right to marry the person you love or your right to be protected from hate crimes under the law. Your faith preaches your exclusion — or damnation. And no one does anything to stop it … Oh yeah, and the words “queer,” “homo,” and “faggot” that people throw around all the time? Yeah, those might as well be personal attacks. 

As an aside, there is news today that Sarah Palin’s sixteen year old daughter Willow embarrassed herself with a Facebook homophobic rant, using the personal attack terms Simonson derides.  What values is she learning from her mother?

Roman Catholic Council of Bishops signals move to the right

Archbishop DolanFor progressive Catholics who thought that the solid swing to the right by the church hierarchy, away from Vatican II, couldn’t get worse, it just did.  The conservative vice-president of the American Council of Bishops, in line for election to the presidency, was defeated by a right wing insurgency and an outspoken hard-liner, New York Archbishop Tim Dolan, was elected.

Conservatives [dislike the vice-president’s] reputation as a moderate who favors dialogue and persuasion over the more bully pulpit pronouncements of churchmen like … Dolan, a media-friendly but outspoken figure who became head of the New York archdiocese only last year. 

[It was] conservatives’ main goal of thwarting the ascension of a progressive to the top spot; since the contemporary structure of the bishops conference was established in the 1960s, no sitting vice-president has ever been passed over for promotion to the presidency of the bishops — until now.

ELCA commits half a million dollars to cholera relief

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) announced Nov. 15 that it has committed $500,000 for the prevention and treatment of cholera in Haiti, as well as continued response to communities displaced by the January 2010 earthquake. The gift is in addition to the $25,000 the church committed last week for similar purposes in Haiti.

ELCA social statement on genetics

Critics of the ELCA can find the lamest of excuses to justify their stance.  A small, rural, farm community congregation of the Red River Valley of North Dakota announced that part of their rationale for leaving the ELCA is a pending social statement on genetics.

Members of the Anselm Trinity Lutheran Church near Sheldon, N.D., interpreted the ELCA’s draft statement as saying farmers who use genetically modified seeds are “pretty much sinners,” said church council president Jill Bunn.

The church is located in the Red River Valley, where farmers often use enhanced seeds to help plants resist weed killers.

Turns out that the pending social statement, which is still in draft and discussion stage, says nothing of the sort.

“If anyone reads the statement for themselves they’ll see that it does not condemn genetically engineered seeds and it doesn’t make any recommendation on farm management practices,” said Roger Willer, the ELCA staff person working with the task force developing the statement.

Call to Action: progressive Catholics hold a convention

Along with a couple thousand others, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee attending the annual convention of Call to Action (CTA), a beleaguered group of progressive Roman Catholics.  The conservative retrenchment of the Vatican and the American bishops marches on, and one wonders what the future holds for Catholic progressives.  I met hundreds of interesting persons with fascinating stories: former priests and nuns who are now married, many gays or parents of gays, and numerous women who have recently been ordained to the priesthood or who are anticipating ordination in the near future. 

“What,” you ask, “women ordained as Catholic priests?”

Roman Catholic Womenpriests is a movement less than a decade old that began with the 2002 ordination of seven women (six Europeans and one American).  Since then, the movement is growing rapidly (despite excommunications), and I can attest to a sense of vibrancy at the Womenpriests’ booth that attracted an earnest crowd.  One of the priests at the exhibit told me that their booth at the 2008 CTA Convention attracted a few curiosity seekers, but overall the mood was “don’t get too close to these excommunicated dissidents”.  Last year, at the 2009 CTA convention, she reported that the fear of contagion had dissipated and the curiosity level had increased dramatically.  This year, the Womenpriests booth was filled with visitors who had moved beyond curiosity to genuine interest.  Their US map with red and green dots signifying locations of ordained womenpriests and pending ordinations was a hit with many asking for more specifics so they could attend a nearby Eucharist celebrated by female clergy.

Are progressive Catholics coming to the realization that their future lies outside the patriarchal hierarchy and beyond the control of the Vatican?  If so, where?  If not, how can progressive Catholics effect reform within the existing conservative power structures?

Enter the American Catholic Council.  The Council also had an energetic presence at the CTA conference, passing out brochures inviting all to a Pentecost gathering next June.  CTA is one of the member organizations of the Council, which also includes other Catholic reform organizations.

American Catholic Council is a movement bringing together a network of individuals, organizations, and communities to consider the state and future of our Church. We believe our Church is at a turning point in its history. We recall the promise of the Second Vatican Council for a renaissance of the roles and responsibilities of all the Baptized through a radically inclusive and engaged relationship between the Church and the World.  We respond to the Spirit of Vatican II by summoning the Baptized together to demonstrate our re-commitment. We seek personal conversion to renew our Church to conform to the authentic Gospel message, the teachings of our Church, and our lived context in the United States. Our reading of the “signs of the times”, as we experience them in the US, our plan and our agenda are set out in our Declaration.  We educate; we listen; we facilitate discussions and encounters; and, we build toward an American Catholic Council  that will convene in Detroit over Pentecost weekend in June of 2011.  At this Council we hope to proclaim our belief in the Rights and Responsibilities of US Catholics.

June 10, 2011.  Mark the date. 

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to visit with keynote speaker, retired Episcopal Bishop and noted author John Shelby Spong, and we discussed our mutual suspicion that the Apostle Paul may have been a conflicted gay man (which is developed in my novel, A Wretched Man).  Bishop Spong said he first encountered that theory in a 1930’s book by theologian Arthur Darby Nock.  We also discussed our mutual admiration for recently deceased British theologian Michael Goulder, who rekindled interest in the theory of Christian origins that posits a fundamental opposition between Paul the Apostle on one side and the Jerusalem Christians Peter and James, Jesus’ brother, on the other.  This dispute provides the main plot line of A Wretched Man

I also visited with Linda Pinto of CORPUS who favored me with an early report on her reading of the novel:

It was indeed a delight to meet you at CTA. I am, however, a little annoyed. I packed your book (a present to my husband) and at the last moment thought….you might browse through it at the airport. As the hotel forgot to change their clocks, they woke me up at 3:45 am rather than 4:45 am. So, with that much time to kill, I started to read A Wretched Man. WOW!!!! I am addicted. My annoyance comes from the fact that I had to return to work today and my husband insisted that I keep the book at home for his consumption!

I love your attention to detail and description. I love the interplay between the story of Paul and Jesus. And I love your description of Jesus’ family.

That is to say, get me a book review and I will publish it in CORPUS REPORTS.

Anyone interested in writing a book review for CORPUS?  Contact me.

I’ll be voting for …

I’m ready to vote now in the Minnesota election for governor, aided by a helpful piece of campaign literature. 

In today’s mail I received a flyer entitled, “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics”.  “Serious” is an interesting choice of adjectives.  I have some very good Catholic friends, organizers of the recent Synod of the Baptized, and they certainly are serious about their faith and their Catholic tradition; yet, I don’t think they are the folks this flyer has in mind.  In fact, they’re probably too serious and thus not likely to be easily persuaded to vote according to marching orders.  I suspect  that “serious” in the flyer is a euphemism for “good”, “real”, or “true”.  Or, to put a finer point on it, if you don’t vote for this flyer’s endorsed candidate then you’re “bad”, “not a real” Catholic, or a “false” Catholic.

In the midst of the Great Recession, certainly the flyer would offer some insight into the economic policies of the candidates.  Or, the candidate views on health care.  Or, education.  Or, …?  Certainly there are “serious” (there’s that word again) issues to be debated, and if this “real” Catholic organization truly wants to inform the electorate, perhaps just a word or two about “serious” issues, but no, nary a peep.

But, they’re expanding.  The folks behind this flyer used to be called “single issue”, and that issue was abortion.  It’s still abortion, but now they have added a second: “protection of marriage”.  I guess they’re branching out, but on both issues they would seek to impose their will on the sexual behavior of others.  Through government intrusion.

If you’re interested, the flyer was prepared and paid for by the National Organization for Marriage and the Minnesota Family Council.  And their preferred candidate?  Republican Tom Emmer.

I’ll be voting for Democrat Mark Dayton.

Conservative Christianity driving a generation away from religion

A week ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minnesota announced a reorganization plan that will eliminate twenty-one congregations in the metro, merging them into fourteen existing parishes.  Stated another way, thirty-five current congregations will be downsized into fourteen.  Some have suggested that if it wasn’t for the influx of Hispanic immigrants, the Roman Catholic church nationally would  be suffering even greater declines in membership.

Of course, the problem of declining religious participation is not confined to Catholicism.   Indeed, statistics suggest the decline in Americans who identify with religion is startling.

That shift is the decline in participation by all Americans, but particularly young adults, in churches. In 1990 only 7 percent of Americans indicated “none” as religious affiliation. By 2008 that number had grown to 17 percent. But among young adults, in their twenties, the percent of “nones” is reaching nearly 30%. The new “nones” are heavily concentrated among those who have come of age since 1990.

But wait, aren’t many conservative Christian denominations growing?  Many evangelical churches thrive but at the cost of theological depth—“a mile wide and an inch deep”.  Some are thinly veiled entertainment ministries.   Joel Osteen Ministries is merely the most blatant example of the appealing “prosperity gospel” that too often characterizes the mega-growth churches, and makes charismatic leaders such as Osteen very wealthy. 

But it is the judgmental scapegoating that is turning off this generation of young adults according to an article out of Seattle last week.  Blaming the public perception of Christianity, as espoused by the religious right, for the stark decline in those identifying with religion, the article discusses a poll and a book entitled American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which:

makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

Twenty somethings are walking away from the church, the article concludes, because of a skewed “public perception of religion as largely socially conservative,” and the perception of religion as homophobic is especially responsible for the growing percentage of “nones.”

An unrelated poll out last week suggests similar conclusions, and correlates with this blog’s recent theme of suggesting that conservative Christian policies are part of the problem of gay bullying and critically low self esteem for many young gays.

Most Americans believe messages about homosexuality coming from religious institutions contribute to negative views of gays and lesbians, and higher rates of suicide among gay youths, a new poll reports … Americans are more than twice as likely to give houses of worship low marks on handling the issue of homosexuality, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Oct. 21).

After a recent spate of teen suicides prompted by anti-gay harassment and bullying, the poll indicates a strong concern among Americans about how religious messages are impacting public discussions of homosexuality.

Once again, there is a significant gap between the attitudes of younger versus older adults which mirrors very closely the higher percentage of “nones” among young adults.

Nearly half of Americans age 18-34 say messages from places of worship are contributing “a lot” to negative views of gay and lesbian people, compared to just 30 percent of Americans age 65 and older.

I’ll close by repeating the words of a young woman spoken at the ELCA Church Wide Assembly in 2009 (CWA09),

“Give us honesty,” she said.  “My generation is turned off by what they see as hypocrisy in the church. ‘Love your neighbor’ is on the lips of the church, but a cold shoulder is what my generation sees.”

Catholic Crisis in Minnesota

As the Catholic hierarchy becomes ever more firmly entrenched in a conservative retreat from the reforms of Vatican II, recent events in Minnesota offer a microcosm of the rift that widens with those who dare question the top down policies that emanate from the Vatican. 

Synod of the Baptized On Saturday, September 18th, the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR) organized an event entitled Synod of the Baptized in Minneapolis.  The title implied the theme: that all the baptized, both lay and clergy, are coequal and a hierarchical model of governance in which clergy alone dictate church policy must be reformed.  Organizers planned for up to 400 participants, but registrations exceeded expectations and were cut off at 500 in the weeks before the event, and the facilities included both a main ballroom that was crowded to full capacity and an adjacent overflow room with closed circuit TV that was also nearly full.

The morning session included a keynote address by Paul Lakeland director of the Center for Catholic Studies and the Aloysius P. Kelly Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.  His address paralleled his ideas in his recently released book entitled Church, and also his earlier work, Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the laity can save the church.  I was present at the Synod, working with the bookstore of St. Martin’s table, and his books were clearly the hot item and sold out quickly.  I spoke with Professor Lakeland after his keynote address.   Noting the absence of folks browsing at the bookstore while the Synod was in session, Lakeland suggested that these folks were seriously devoted to their cause and faithfully listened to the speakers. 

Paula Ruddy, one of the key organizers, stated:

If signs of the Holy Spirit’s action in a group are joy and hope, Saturday’s Synod of the Baptized was a Spirit-filled place. Most of us were not able to see tongues of fire, but we heard voluble talk and shining eyes while people spoke of their experience of oneness.

And the official response from the St Paul Archdiocese?

CCCR is not “in union” with either the Archbishop nor the Archdiocese in any way, shape or form. That fact has been posted on our Archdiocesan web site since this past August and has been printed in the Catholic Spirit.

Please read the blog Progressive Catholic Voice for full treatment of this event and the critical comments of the Archdiocese.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Minnesota announced on September 20th that they would mail thousands of DVDs to Catholic parishioners encouraging resistance to political efforts in the legislature to enact marriage equality laws in Minnesota.  One notable dissenting voice to this official entanglement of the Roman Catholic Church in secular politics is artist Lucinda Naylor.  When Naylor announced plans to create a sculpture out of these DVDs as a protest against the actions of the Bishops, she was promptly suspended from her part-time job at the Minneapolis Basilica of St Mary.  According to the article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune,

“I suspect suspension is a kind word for termination,” Naylor said. “I’ll miss the income. But there’s times when people need to stand up for what they believe.”

One blogger commented,

The Basilica of St. Mary is a monumental church in downtown Minneapolis. Part of their mission? To “preach justice,” and to “contribute to the celebration of the sacred arts” in the Minneapolis community. Yet despite this core identity, the Basilica of St. Mary has decided to discipline Naylor because she supports marriage equality. Art it seems, at least within the confines of the Basilica of St. Mary, is now only suitable if the artist making it believes that homosexuality is icky.

Finally, blogger Terence on Open Tabernacle notes the study in contrasts between the Roman Catholic hierarchical response to progressive impulses in Minnesota versus the official ELCA involvement in the Rites of Reception that have welcomed LGBT clergy onto the rosters of ordained clergy.

Synod of the Baptized

Synod of the baptized logo On Saturday, September 18th, the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR) will convene a Synod of the Baptized in Minneapolis with expectations for an overflow crowd of nearly 500 persons.  The Synod byline is “Claiming our place at the Table.”  More information is available on CCCR’s website.  The website lists eight progressive Catholic coalition partners with ties to Minnesota, and here is a portion of their self-definition:

We are the Church. In our understanding of Church, all the baptized are one big community of smaller communities, we are all equal, we all participate in different ministries (lay, clergy, bishop), we communicate with one another, and we share a vision and a self-critique. The five words we have been using to summarize this model of Church are community, equality, participation, dialogue, and prophecy. It is a model arising out of Vatican II and seems to us most in line with the Gospel message. It has been promulgated by the Asian bishops and it also fits well with the positive values of our U.S. culture.

There are other models of Church that can be drawn from Vatican II documents, more top down models, and this is what is causing tension in the contemporary Church. We believe that the fate of grown-ups is to live with ambiguity and tension, so we are not daunted by differences in points of view. Our intent is to try to create community based on the model we think best, to remain open to dialogue with people who espouse other models, and to keep focused on the Church’s mission.

The Synod keynote address will be offered by Paul Lakeland:

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Professor of Catholic Studies, and Director of Fairfield University’s Center for Catholic Studies. He has been teaching at Fairfield University since 1981, where he has previously served as Director of the Honors Program and Chair of the Religious Studies Department.

Michael Bayly and Paula Ruddy are board members and key organizers of the Synod.  They have been blogging at Progressive Catholic Voice in preparation for the Synod, discussing challenges for the contemporary church, following the list offered by Lakeland in his recent book entitled Church.  Lakeland’s list of challenges includes ecumenism, the role of women, scandal of sexual abuse, etc.

Ruddy’s latest post about ecumenism notes the historical role played by Minnesota’s own St John’s Abbey and University:

Minnesotans are familiar with the liturgical movement that began in Europe in the middle of the 19th century from the involvement of St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville and the great teachers trained there. [Lakeland] says that in some ways the liturgical movement laid groundwork for the ecumenical movement in crossing denominational lines. It all led up to the great Ecumenical Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.

I was privileged to have studied under Father Godfrey Diekmann at St John’s School of Theology who was one of these important reform figures behind the scenes of Vatican II that Lakeland referred to.

What is “progressive Christianity”?

A lengthy essay by Brad R Braxton (Baptist minister and seminary professor) appearing in the Huffington Post seeks to answer this question.  Since this blog purports to be about “progressive, religious themes”, we’ll pick up this thread.  Braxton writes:

According to some accounts, the term “progressive Christian” surfaced in the 1990s and began replacing the more traditional term “liberal Christian.” During this period, some Christian leaders wanted to increasingly identify an approach to Christianity that was socially inclusive, conversant with science and culture, and not dogmatically adherent to theological litmus tests such as a belief in the Bible’s inerrancy. The emergence of contemporary Christian progressivism was a refusal to make the false choice of “redeeming souls or redeeming the social order.”

Progressive Christians believe that sacred truth is not frozen in the ancient past. While respecting the wisdom of the past, progressive Christians are open to the ways truth is moving forward in the present and future for the betterment of the world. Progressive Christianity recognizes that our sacred texts and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary circumstances to prevent religion from becoming a relic.

During the recent biennial convention of Lutherans Concerned North America, I attended a breakout session for “progressive clergy” (I was a usurper since I’m not clergy), and the threshold question was raised, “what does it mean to be a religious progressive?”  Since time was limited, we didn’t explore all nuances of the question, but we quickly focused on the prophetic.  Braxton also stresses the the prophetic nature of religious progressivism.

Prophetic religion involves a willingness to interrupt an unjust status quo so that more people might experience peace and prosperity … Prophetic evangelicalism insists that Jesus came to save us not only from our personal sins but also from the systematic sins that oppress neighborhoods and nations. Jesus presented his central theme in social and political terms. He preached and taught consistently about the “kingdom of God” — God’s beloved community where social differences no longer divide and access to God’s abundance is equal.

Braxton quotes Biblical scholar Obery Hendricks:

In our time, when many seem to think that Christianity goes hand in hand with right-wing visions of the world, it is important to remember that there has never been a conservative prophet. Prophets have never been called to conserve social orders that have stratified inequities of power and privilege and wealth; prophets have always been called to change them so all can have access to the fullest fruits of life.

Rev Dr. Serene Jones In response to Fox News resident idiot Glen Beck, who foolishly suggested that social justice is not in the Bible, the President of Union Theological Seminary, the Rev Dr. Serene Jones, penned a tongue in cheek response (quoted here from Telling Secrets blog):

Dear Mr. Beck,

I write with exciting news. Bibles are en route to you, even as we speak!

Kindly let me explain. On your show, you said that social justice is not in the Bible, anywhere. Oh my, Mr. Beck. At first we were so confused. We couldn’t figure out how you could possibly miss this important theme. And then it hit us: maybe you don’t have a Bible to read. Let me assure you, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people live Bible-less lives. But we want to help out. And so, as I write this, our students are collecting Bibles from across the nation, packing them in boxes, and sending them to your offices. Grandmothers, uncles, children, co-workers — indeed, Bible-readers from all walks of life have eagerly contributed. They should be arriving early next week, hopefully just in time for your next show. Read them with zeal!

Oh, I almost forgot: we’ve marked a few of the social justice passages, just in case you can’t find them.

What does this mean in actual practice?  How do progressive Christians live out the prophetic call to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Of course, one could cite the progressive march toward full inclusion of the LGBTQ community that is occurring in our mainline Protestant churches.  For instance, seven LGBT pastors who were previously ordained by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries but not by the ELCA will be received as ELCA rostered pastors through a “Rite of Reception” this coming Sunday, July 25.Seven California Pastors

Here’s another example gleaned from today’s blogosphere.  Blog friend Susan Hogan reports that “Pastors for peace head to Cuba” (ELCA critic and WordAlone President Jaynan Clark will likely flip out again in response to this report).

A caravan carrying 100 tons of “humanitarian” aid is scheduled to cross into Cuba today, leaders of Pastors for Peace said Tuesday at a news conference at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in McAllen, Texas.

The [group] has broken the U.S. embargo against Cuba 20 times previously. The embargo includes travel and trade restrictions.

Pastors for Peace is an outreach of the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community, which delivers aid to Latin America and the Caribbean.

And another from fellow blogger Terence Weldon on Open Tabernacle in an article entitled “Authentic Catholicism”.  While discussing the water relief efforts of an African Catholic diocese, Weldon offers the following indictment of the patriarchal, clerical, hierarchal structures of the Vatican:

To judge from either the most outspoken voices of the Catholic right, or from the anti-Catholic opposition, you could easily think that Catholicism’s most distinctive features are an insistence on blind obedience to the Pope and Catechism, and puritanical sexual ethics.  The empirical evidence from actual research, shows a very different picture … [Weldon cites two reports which gauge parishoner’s own sense of what it means to be Catholic] Once again, I do not see in there any reference to automatic obedience, still less to compliance with “official” sexual ethics. But in both these characterizations of Catholic “identity”, a sense of social responsibility and concern for the poor ranked high (emphasis added)- which is what the Ghana contribution to clean water is all about.

And then there is the silly charge by conservatives that progressives don’t uphold the moral standards of the Bible.  Jesus called his followers to a higher morality that upheld the spirit of the law often in conflict with its letter, to uplift the alien and the outcast, and to love one’s neighbor.  Braxton quotes author Amy-Jill Levine who imagines Jesus chiding a narrow minded, exclusivist Christian who wrongly believes his status is based on offering an appropriate creedal confession:

If you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew … you’ll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison …  [Jesus continues] I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John’s Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?