Sunday, April 22, 2012

What is the "Good News" in the New Evangelization?

The pope and bishops are launching, “The New Evangelization.”  The word “evangelist” comes from a couple of Greek words meaning, “I bring a message of good news.”  Therefore, evangelization involves expressing good news.  What good news do the new evangelists bring?  To whom do they bring it?  Does that target audience find the message to be “good news?”                                        

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has three goals for the New Evangelization:  
  1. For Catholics’ to live their faith in Jesus enthusiastically and openly
  2. To welcome everyone in the church
  3. To foster gospel values in society. 
On the surface those goals seem fine.  But, the devil is in the details.  Let’s start with the second goal first – welcoming people.

According to a 2009 Canadian study 72.3% of Catholic school students believed their schools were unsupportive of LGBT students and 87.5% felt teachers at their schools were ineffective at addressing homophobic bullying.  Those statistics are far higher than expressed by students at non-Catholic schools.  It is difficult to make a case for welcoming everyone in the Catholic Church when Catholic schools do not welcome homosexual youths as warmly as public schools do.  Youth are a target audience for the new evangelization but they do not see the church as lovingly welcoming their LGBT friends and family.  On this topic, they do not see the church as bringing very “good news”. 

The New Evangelization also tries to bring back fallen-away Catholics.  Therefore the opinions of Catholics who have left the church are important to understand.  According to the 2012 “Empty Pews” study, the top reasons people leave the Catholic Church are:
  • Mishandling of the sex abuse crisis
  • The church’s attitudes towards homosexual people
  • “Arrogant”, “distant”, “aloof” and “insensitive” priests
  • Uninspiring homilies
  • Hierarchy’s entanglement in secular conservative politics and alignment with the Republican Party
  • Attitudes towards divorced and remarried people
  • The status of women in the church
Though fallen-away Catholics are a target audience, this study reveals many of them feel the church lacks compassion dealing with divorcees, homosexuals, and abuse victims.  They are horrified by the lies, deceit and skewed priorities dealing with the abuse crisis.  They see the church as homophobic and sexist and feel it discriminates against homosexuals and women rather than welcomes them.   Women are “welcome” only if they abide by the clergy’s defined mould for women; homosexuals are “welcome” only if they accept the church’s teaching that their God-given sexual orientation is actually “intrinsically disordered”.  Many people just don’t find this very “welcoming” and perhaps even find it unjust. 

Hierarchical leaders refuse to consider that they might be wrong and so they counter that people who feel the church is unwelcoming or unjust are simply either uninformed or misinformed.  They sincerely believe that if people just heard their rationale, they would support church practices. Thus, one of the tactics for the New Evangelization is to re-evangelize the faithful.

In re-evangelizing the faithful, people are encouraged to develop an educated, mature faith.  Mature faith involves probing deep, difficult questions.  But, many people who become educated and mature in their faith and ask questions, find themselves chastised, marginalized, censured, or excommunicated.  Do hierarchical leaders foster education and maturity, or indoctrination? 

Recently seniors at De LaSalle Catholic high school in Minneapolis attended a mandatory marriage presentation and were told that same-sex love was akin to bestiality and children from single-parent homes were abnormal.   Students, maturing in their faith, felt the seminar was an overt political maneuver, trying to shape their minds as soon-to-be-voters on an upcoming same-sex marriage ballot question.  Aligned with their consciences, many students protested.  Rather than engage in mature dialogue, school and diocesan officials abruptly ended the session.  I don’t imagine these students find the church welcoming to gays, single parents, children of single parents, or people of mature faith.

Those students’ reaction is similar to that of many people of mature faith who disagree with church policies.  They are very familiar with the gospel and church teachings.  They feel they have a very strong faith in Jesus but feel Jesus would very strongly object to the church’s policies.  They feel they must openly and enthusiastically live their faith aligned with a Jesus who sought out the marginalized, the unwanted, the devalued, and the sinner.  They feel they must openly and enthusiastically welcome women in ways that break social and religious cultural norms, just like Jesus did.  They feel it is not their place to evaluate the absence or presence of sin in same-sex love but to love the individuals involved because they are fiercely certain the Jesus they know demands such non-judgmental acceptance.

The New Evangelization assumes that louder, more frequent repetition of the same messages that drove people away will cause people to rejoin the church.  Will it do that or just inspire more people to leave? 

In their New Evangelization efforts, church leaders say they seek the “lost” sheep.  But the “lost” sheep think the shepherds are actually the ones who are lost.  Consequently the “lost” think it’s breathtakingly arrogant of church leaders to label them as such.  They don’t think church leaders have very good news to share, or at least not the good news associated with Jesus.  They actually feel Jesus would reprimand today’s religious leaders every bit as vehemently as he did the Pharisees of his day.  Both sides believe they are correct.  Is this an unbreakable impasse?

The New Evangelization materials say the church needs to reach out and show people that the church answers their deepest questions and concerns.  Do church leaders think the “good news” is that they have the answer key to a very complicated final exam?  Or do they think the “good news” is simple acceptance of the Triune God with the assurance that despite our sufferings and failings in this world, we will be forever reunited with God?

My mom died on Valentine’s Day this year, surrounded by about two dozen family members.  That group included married people, unmarried people, divorcees, remarried people, single parents, lapsed Catholics, practicing Catholics, heterosexuals, homosexuals, Caucasians, African Americans, young, old, men and women…all the sorts of people that the church manages to alienate. 

As the end drew near, we held her and each other while quietly singing in multi-part harmony her favorite hymns.  Our diversity allowed us to sing confidently in our own voices – in unified harmony not uniformity or unison – and that enhanced our song.  This reflected the welcoming table my mother set.   What can be said of the choir of voices formed by the forced unison and uniformity of the New Evangelization? 

We sang “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the wounded soul…”  That seemed like good news.  We sang, “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; for his eye is on the sparrow and I know he cares for me…”  That seemed like good news too.  We sang several songs and could sense the way their messages eased her journey from this world to the next.  It eased our journey watching her departure.  That was good news too.  But she died as we sang these very words, “I am the resurrection; I am the life; if you believe in me, even though you die, you will live forever.”  That was her good news – pure and simple.  That is the good news she instilled in us.  It is my understanding that is the gospel's good news too.

My mom railed against injustice in the church whenever she felt it complicated the pure and simple “good news”.   Does the New Evangelization offer pure and simple “good news” or have church leaders complicated and perverted it?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guest artist: Len Swidler's open letter to the Pope - "Dear Joe"

Earlier this week I received a copy of this letter from my friend, Len Swidler.  Len knows Pope Benedict XVI from their days teaching together at Tübingen.  He asked that people share his letter so I post it here for others to read.  This is the first guest artist on my blog. 


Dear Joe,

Some years back when you were still the head of the Holy Office (“of the Sacred Inquisition” is, as you know, stilled chiseled in stone over its dark building immediately next to St. Peter’s square), I wrote you an open letter concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church. At that time I addressed you with a familiar “Dear Joe,” relying on our relationship from the late 60s/early 70s when I was frequently a Visiting Professor at the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Tübingen, and you were Professor Ordinarius there. I did so in the thought that this form of address would tell you that I seriously hoped you might open your mind and heart to hear what I wanted to say to you. I have no way of knowing what success I may have had, if any, in that regard. However, relying on our former “collegiality,” I am approaching you once again in this fraternal fashion.

I am disturbed that especially of late you have been giving signals that are in opposition to the words and spirit of Vatican Council II, during which you as a leading young theologian helped to move our beloved Catholic Church out of the Middle Ages into Modernity. Further, while a professor at our Alma Mater University of Tübingen, you, along with the rest of your colleagues of the Catholic Theology faculty, publicly advocated 1) the election of bishops by their constituents, and 2) limited term of office of bishops (see the book Democratic Bishops for the Roman Catholic Church,

Now—— you are publicly rebuking loyal Catholic priests for doing precisely what you earlier had so nobly advocated. They, and many, many others across the universal Catholic Church, are following your youthful example, trying desperately to move our beloved Mother Church further into Modernity. I deliberately use the word “desperately,” for in your own homeland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the churches are empty, and also are so many Catholic hearts when they hear the chilling words coming from Rome and the “radically obedient” (read: “yes-men”) bishops. In my own homeland, America, the birthplace of modern freedom, human rights, and democracy, we have lost—in this generation alone!—one third of our Catholic population, 30,000,000, because the Vatican II promises of its five-fold Copernican Turn (the turn toward 1. freedom, 2. this world, 3. a sense of history, 4. internal reform, and above all, 5. dialogue) have all been so deliberately dashed by your predecessor, and now increasingly by you.

Joe, you were known as one of the Vatican II theologians who promoted Pope St. John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento (bringing up to date) by the reforming spirit of returning to the energizing original sources (resourcement!) of Christianity (ad fontes!—to the fountains!). Those democratic, freedom-loving sources of the Early Church were exactly the renewing “sources,” the “fountains,” of renewal that were spelled out in detail by you and your Tübingen colleagues.

I am urging you to return to that early reforming spirit of your youth. I am reminded of that spirit now in preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (JES), which my beloved wife Arlene and I launched in 1964. There in the very first issue of JES are articles by your friend and fellow Vatican II theologian Hans Küng, and yourself (!), looking to bridge over the isolating Counter-Reformation gulf that divided the Catholic Church from the rest of Christianity, and indeed the rest of the modern world.

Joe, in that spirit, I urge you to return to your reforming fountains: Return ad fontes!

Leonard Swidler, Ph.D., S.T.L.
Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue, Temple University
Co-Founder, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What did Jesus actually say and do?

What did Jesus actually say and do?  Reading the four gospels’ conflicting accounts of Jesus’ resurrection through his Ascension inspired me to ponder this question again.  The accounts differ greatly in location, timing, and even the characters and what they said.  

Luke’s account says Jesus rose, gave final instructions and ascended all on Easter Day while he was in and around Jerusalem.  However, Matthew’s gospel places the Ascension in Galilee which is at least a 4-day walk from Jerusalem where Jesus was buried.  Mark’s gospel itself contains two different versions of the story.  And, John’s gospel concludes with a bunch of the apostles back at their old fishing jobs in Galilee and no Ascension.  Each gospel has Jesus leaving different final instructions sometimes to men and women, sometimes to apostles only, and sometimes to just Peter.  The wide variance in the Easter stories offers little certainty other than that each gospel author inserted as literary devices, things that Jesus neither said nor did.  Yet in this we seek “truth.”

What is the “gospel truth” offered by these conflicting stories?  This question becomes even more pressing since church leaders select different renditions of the story to justify traditions.  To a layperson, they seem to manipulate Jesus’ words and actions to justify their power, preferences, processes or policies. 

Yet, on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI said that priests are “consecrated in truth”.  Ironically, he then proceeded to spout falsehoods while chastising a group of European priests for supporting female ordinations.  The pope said the church had definitively decided against women’s ordinations and that Pope John Paul II “irrevocably” stated “the Church has received no authority from the Lord” to ordain women.  In this instance, the pope overlooks the Easter accounts where Jesus not only sent (the definition of “apostle”) Mary Magdalene to proclaim the most important news in salvation history to the other apostles, he chastised them for not believing her. 

Quite simply, the pope’s statements are falsehoods.  For the record, John Paul’s statement wasn’t irrevocable.  Pope Benedict wishing and stating it was irrevocable doesn’t make it so.  Jesus gave the church authority to loosen or bind, and stated no explicit ban on women ordinations.  The hierarchical leaders placed those words in Jesus’ mouth and then say they lack authority to remove them.  Jesus actually sent a woman to proclaim the good news of his resurrection.  The church ordained female deacons at least until the ninth century.  Literary and archeological evidence indicates there were women priests in the 4th and 5th centuries.  There is even historical evidence of female bishops in the early church.  So, the pope’s statements were not little lies; they were big ones that have been repeated for centuries in the church.

The pope continued by asking, “Do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”  That is an interesting question.  Since the hierarchy has inserted words in Jesus’ mouth that he never said to justify retaining their traditions, one could ask a similar question about the pope and his predecessors, “Do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to retain the Church in accordance with the hierarchy’s own preferences and ideas?” 

This also causes one to wonder if Pope Benedict learned more from the Nazi Party while he was in Hitler’s Youth than he might care to admit.  The pope belonged to Hitler’s Youth during his formative years and it is reasonable to believe that, at a minimum, unconsciously this impacted his philosophy. 

The Nazis thrived by successfully using the “Big Lie” propaganda theory that if you repeat an outlandish falsehood aggressively and often enough, people will believe it.  They outlandishly accused their opponents of committing the atrocities against them that they actually committed against their opponents.  And people wanting to blame others for their troubles rather than accept accountability, believed them. 

The church hierarchy blames others for their woes, trying to fashion themselves into sacrificial victims instead of aggressors.   They discriminate and cry they are victims of discrimination.  Their policies and practices drive people away from the church but they blame others for luring people away.  They stifle religious liberty but cry their religious liberties are threatened.  They foster an environment in which abusers operate, yet attack abuse victims who try to shed light on the issue.  These seem to be tactics to rally the faithful to defend the church by portraying it as being under attack.  They seem to regularly employ the “Big Lie” propaganda theory.

I also cannot help but see parallels between the church hierarchy’s tactics and a statement Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels made, “Man only honors what he conquers or defends.”  Goebbels’ propaganda machine fed on portraying the aggressor as a victim under attack, trusting that people would feel a sense of affirmation and accomplishment by playing the chivalrous role of defender.  Thus, faking an attack on one’s self is a desperate but sometimes effective way to gain sympathy and support. 

That is not the only parallel I see between Pope Benedict’s philosophy and that of Goebbels.   Another one of Goebbels’ quotes is, “Today there seems to be only one absolute thing: relativism.”  Goebbels blamed “relativism” for Germany’s woes.  Pope Benedict has a slightly modified version blaming “moral relativism” for much of what ails the world and church. 

Actually, much of this pope’s actions both now and when he led the Office for the Doctrine of Faith seem to be a desperate push to retain his preferences and ideas.  He donates his multi-million dollar annual income to a charity to promote his theological views.  He summarily dismisses without due process anyone who even remotely threatens his preferences and ideas, having censured scores of the faithful for the tragic sin of disagreeing with him.

It is difficult to know exactly what Jesus actually said or did.  But we take the gospel messages in faith not as historic or scientific revelations.  In faith, we believe Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep.  He didn’t tell the sheep to obey Peter.    Why does the pope fixate on the latter to the neglect of the former?  We believe in faith that he told his disciples to leave their flock to find the lost sheep.  He didn’t tell them to drive sheep they think are inferior from the flock.  Why do church leaders exert so much effort on the latter and so little effort on the former?  We believe in faith that Jesus told women to proclaim the gospel and chastised the male apostles for not believing them.  He didn’t tell the men, “Don’t you ever ordain a woman and this is irrevocable guys.”  Why does the pope insist on the latter to the neglect of the former?   Why can’t women even proclaim the gospel at Mass, as Mary Magdalene did that first Easter?

Do we prefer the ease of blaming others for our woes rather than accept responsibility?  How much are we swayed by propaganda that turns aggressors into victims?

Who is actually guilty of a “desperate push” to promote their ideas and preferences?