Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back to the Roots

I recently read about a movie that won awards at Cannes and is up for an Oscar (category: Short Film) called Ave Maria.  The title is meant to be somewhat ironic as the film is about a group of Orthodox Jewish settlers in Palestine that crash their car in front of a monastery of nuns.  As I understand the story from what I have read the plot develops around the fact that the settlers can’t use the phone as it is the Sabbath and the nuns can’t talk because they have a vow of silence.  Now, actually, no Catholic Order has a vow where their members can’t talk: that is a myth, but it works the plot apparently and it does introduce my point: religion, when it becomes an end in itself, goes toxic.  If Jews cannot use the phone in a genuine emergency or nuns can’t speak in order to help others in a crisis, there is something wrong.  As I just said, this story has a bit of an artificial set-up as the strictest of rabbis would agree that in an emergency a phone-call could be made and no Catholic Order, no matter how contemplative, is bound to a total silence.  But the fact of the matter is that from the radical jihadists of Islam to the tea-evangelists of Christianity, there are those who trump common decency with a toxic religiosity.  When settlers use some claim that God allegedly gave them sovereignty over a land and use that claim to justify bulldozing the houses and the orchards of people who have lived on that land long before the days when Joshua led the children of Israel into the Promised Land—that is toxic religion.  When Buddhists persecute the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) that is toxic religion.  When Hindus attack Christian churches and faithful in India that is toxic religion.  When Pakistani Muslims use charges of blasphemy against their Christian neighbors to justify violence and plunder, that is toxic religion.  And when “Christians” use their religious beliefs to justify discrimination against others because they are Muslims or immigrants or over LGBT issues then those “religious” beliefs are not longer authentically Christian but are a toxic corruption of our Christian faith. 
I think that it is time for us Christians to move beyond religion and for us Catholics to lead the way.  As a historian it is clear from the available sources, including the New Testament, that Christ did not intend to establish a new religion.  He founded a community of people whom he called to lead a new and different sort of life.  As a historian I am used to reading how Christianity was one religion among many in the later Roman Empire.  I disagree with that.  From reading Paul or the Gospels, I don’t see any indication that the Christians saw themselves as a religion.  The followed “The Way” (see Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 24:14;24:42).  At that time they were still within the embrace of Judaism—it was only with the composure of the twelfth of the Eighteen Benedictions, the proscription of the minim or heretics, around the year 80 AD that the Christians were expelled from the Synagogue and Christianity began to develop separately from Judaism.   “The Way” was not meant to be a religion per se but a Way of Life, a path of discipleship that transcends any notion of “religion.”
Now before I get accused of heresy by the krazies who troll this site, let me distinguish between “religion” and “Church.”  According to the gospels, Christ invited together a community, an ἐκκλησία of disciples. Εκκλησία of course is the Greek word for “Church” (as a community of people, not as a building).  Yes Jesus came to establish a “Church” but that does not mean he came to establish the “Roman Catholic Church.”  The Catholic Church (Roman and otherwise) is certainly a principal heir of the ecclesial legacy of Christ’s disciples, but is also the product of an evolutionary process that has historically developed into something quite more institutionally complex than the original communities of disciples.  By institutionally complex I mean that it historically developed doctrinally, liturgically, and governmentally (though perhaps guided by the Holy Spirit) according to human design.  So while I do not think that Jesus intended to establish a new religion, I do think he established an ἐκκλησία, a Church, a community of those who were consecrated to live according to his way.   I think it might be time to move beyond the consciousness of “religion” and refocus on being a community of such disciples. 
What do I mean by a “community of disciples?”   I am not a huge fan of George Weigel or even of his book Evangelical Catholicism but I do think in that book Weigel gives us the focus for a genuine Catholic renewal when he writes
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord. 
I think that disciples are those who develop that genuine friendship with the Risen Lord through—and this is crucial—through the Scriptures, the Sacraments, Prayer, and one aspect that Weigel (in his American individualism) overlooked: community.  In the Church, the community of disciples, we together delve into the scriptures, break the Bread of Christ’s Body, and nourish our lives of intimate prayer with Christ.  If we do that genuinely and with sincerity there is no room for prejudice, no room for hatred.  We remember the commandment: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.  If you love those who love you: what merit is there in that: even the pagans do as much. 

There are those in our society who take to themselves the appellation “evangelicals” but for the most part they are deceivers and frauds.  By their fruits will you know them.  They incite division and fear; they divide and set people against one another. And they do so in the name of Jesus.  All Christians, including us Catholics, are called to be evangelicals: witnesses to the Gospel.  By this will all people know you are my disciples: by the love that you have for one another.  It is not by our self-righteous looking down on those who are different from us, whom we judge to be sinners or non-believers that we are witnesses.  It is not by encouraging fear and hatred, by calling for people to be “sent back to where they came from,” or denies housing or education or jobs because they “aren’t like us” that we are witnesses.  When we buy into the current climate of anger and fear and prejudice we cease to be witnesses to Christ and his Gospel.  We become “evangelists” of a false gospel, the word of the Father of Lies rather than the Word of God. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Dialogue

Luther posting the 95
Theses on the Castle
Church Door 
Pope Francis continues to drive the Krazies to the brink of schism.  The current outrage is his apology for the atrocities committed by Catholics against Protestants during the Reformation and his decision to attend a public commemoration of the Reformation at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden, this autumn marking the beginning of the 5th centennial of the Reformation. 
It is curious that the commemoration marking the beginning of the year long anticipation of Luther’s 1517 posting of the 95 Theses on Wittenberg Castle Church is being held in Sweden and not in Germany.  Presumably the conclusion of the centennial will be held next year in Wittenberg and it is easier for the Pope to go to an event held by the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden rather than the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany as the Swedish Church has always maintained much more of its Catholic heritage than the other Lutheran Churches. 
Lund has been a diocese since 1060—originally suffrage to Hamburg—and a Metropolitan Archdiocese from 1104 until the Reformation.  During the Middle Ages it held the primacy of Scandinavia.  During the Reformation the Scandinavian Churches temporarily abolished the distinctions of Archbishop, reducing Lund to a diocese again.  It currently is a diocese suffragen to Uppsala.  The last Catholic Archbishop of Torben Bille who, before he could be consecrated, was arrested and imprisoned by Christian III of Denmark. 
This gets a little complicated here as there are several interlocking historical circles.  Lund at the time of Torben Bille was actually under Danish rule.  Christian’s father, Frederick I, had introduced Lutheranism into Denmark.  Christian’s accession to the throne was initially blocked by the Catholic bishops and nobles who were resisting the Reformation, but after the Count’s War King Christian prevailed in his efforts to make the Church of Denmark Lutheran.  As Lund was in his realm, he was not anxious for a Catholic bishop there and so replaced Bille with Frans Vormordsen.  It was over a century later, in 1658, that Lund was ceded to Sweden. 
As for the Church of Sweden being Lutheran, that is a parallel but separate story.  Sweden, Denmark, and Norway had been united under one crown by Margaret I of Denmark in the 1397 Union of Kalmar.  With the gradual rise of distinct national identities among the Scandinavian peoples in the fifteenth century this Union became more and more fragile.  In the early sixteenth century the Swedes established their independence under the leadership of Gustav Vasa, a truly great monarch.  The problem was that the Archbishop of Uppsala and primate of Sweden, Gustav Trolle, was still loyal to Christian II of Denmark.  The Danish parliament, the Riksdag, petitioned the pope to replace him with Johannes Magnus, a prelate  more to his own liking.  There were four other empty dioceses and Gustav proposed candidates to the pope for these dioceses as well.  The pope rejected Magnus and three of Gustav’s four candidates.  The King installed Magnus without the authorizing papal bull.  The irony is that Magnus turned out to be a loyal Catholic and Gustav was frustrated in his attempts to introduce Lutheranism to Sweden.  He finally sent Magnus to Russia on a diplomatic errand.  Meanwhile, Magnus’ brother went to Rome and explained to the Holy See the situation in Sweden and why Trolle could not be reinstated.  The Holy See ended up having Magnus consecrated as Archbishop of Uppsala but as Gustav Vasa was determined to introduce Lutheranism to his kingdom, the point was moot and Magnus was unable to return to his see and spent the remainder of his life in Rome. 
Why did Gustav Vasa want Sweden to be Lutheran?  Basically it was the same story as the motivation behind Henry VIII.  Both monarchs—as well as several other European Kings and princes—believed that the Church in their realms should be subject to the Crown and not to a foreign prince—the Pope.  This was the time of the rise of nation states and the various kings and princes saw the political power of the Church and were determine to harness it for their own purposes.  In countries such as France, and even more so Spain, where the papacy pretty much gave control over the Church to the Crown there was no problem.  But in Denmark and Sweden and England and Scotland and a variety of German principalities and dukedoms, the practicalities of politics trumped Christian faith.  Of course today too God often get’s the word and self-interest gets the deed. 

Today there is a strong backlash against ecumenism among the right-wing Catholics.  They ignore both the complexities of history and our contemporary world and want no dialogue—much less apologies—with those who differ from their own opinions and views.  They are quite like the wing-nuts that have taken over conservative politics in the United States: it is all or nothing, no dialogue and no compromise.  I will steer away from the political realm—though it interlocks with a certain distorted Christianity—but in the realm of Christianity we cannot afford not to sit down and dialogue with anyone who is willing to enter into sincere and honest dialogue.  The healing of the divisions in Christianity is of paramount importance in a world that on the one flank is confronted by jihadist Islam and on the flank by the rampant secularism of our post-modern world.   Jesus’ final request for us was ut unum sint: that all may be one.  This is not an option: it is a commandment.  We are a long way from being able to fulfill that mandate but it begins with dialogue. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

In my last post I mentioned that Pope Francis had received an ecumenical delegation from Finland that included bishops, priests, and the faithful from the Lutheran Church of Finland.  Reading the krazies’ blogs I see that after their meeting with the Holy Father the delegation went to Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica where they were all—including the Lutherans in the group—given Holy Communion.  To be fair to the Protestants in the party they had apparently approached the Lord’s Table seeking only a blessing but the concelebrating priests, with full knowledge that they are not Catholics, gave them the Eucharist.  Needless to say, the krazies are running in circles screaming about “sacrilegious communions.”  Talk about an over-reaction.  These people are totally mad.
Part of the problem—at least in the krazies’ minds (and I can see their point) is that Pope Francis himself hemmed and hawed when recently asked by a Lutheran woman if she could receive Holy Communion when attending Mass with her Catholic husband.  The Pope didn’t say that she could but he really didn’t clearly say that she couldn’t.  In fact he did what most priests do: he explained why she shouldn’t but left the question ultimately to her own decision.  The krazies didn’t like that.  They want selective obedience to be their sole prerogative—it’s how they maintain the illusion that everyone else is eating in the cafeteria.   
Of course Pope John Paul II had given Holy Communion to Tony Blair while he was still an Anglican when he attended the Pope’s Mass with his Catholic wife and children.  And at Pope John Paul’s funeral, then Cardinal Ratzinger gave Holy Communion to Brother Roger, the Protestant prior and founder of the ecumenical monastery of Taizé.  Moreover, several months later when Brother Roger was murdered by a krazy person, Pope Benedict sent Cardinal Kasper to celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial for Brother Roger and with the instructions that all—including Protestants—were to be given communion.  In fact, according to Canon Law, the local ordinary can—under certain circumstances—grant permission for a baptized non-Catholic Christian to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  Needless to say the Pope can also grant this permission, even outside his own diocese.  I happen to have a Protestant sister-in-law who has the permission of her local bishop to receive Holy Communion when she attends Mass with my brother (which she does weekly). 
There is nothing “sacrilegious” about a Protestant receiving Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  It may be (and it may not be according to circumstances) illicit but it is not sacrilegious.  A person in grave (aka “mortal”) sin who receives the Eucharist makes a “sacrilegious communion” but not a non-Catholic acting in good faith.  In fact, reading Matthew 9:10-13, I would think that the Communions of these “Communion Police” who want to keep others from the Lord’s Table might very well be the sacrilegious communions. 
The fact of the matter is that each weekend at thousands of Catholic parishes across the world, non-Catholics receive Holy Communion.  In some places announcements are made that “only Catholics in the State of Grace…” but they are for the most part ignored.  (On the other hand, I remember attending Sunday Mass at Notre Dame in Paris some years back and the canon presiding at the Mass made the announcement that “all baptized Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion.”  That certainly was beyond the canon law even in the liberal Paris of then Cardinal Archbishop Lustiger.) 

So in the end Pope Francis acted no differently than most priests.  And the priest(s) in the Basilica who gave Holy Communion to the Lutheran pilgrims should have respected their willingness to follow the canons but their communions were hardly sacrilegious.  And perhaps we need to pay attention to the fact that despite the rules and regulations, thousands of Christians are sharing together in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood across the lines that divide us. Indeed, perhaps the Unity of the Eucharistic Body of Christ will restore the unity of the ecclesial Body. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Complexities of Ecumenism

Pope Francis greets Archbishop
of Uppsala and Primate of the
Church of Sweden, Antje Jakelen
It wasn’t that long ago that a delegation from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined an invitation to meet Pope John Paul II when the Vatican insisted that one of the bishops in the delegation be excluded from the papal meeting because she is a woman. It was the Vatican stance that such a meeting would undermine the Church’s opposition to women’s ordination.  Last May Pope Francis met with Antje Jackelén, the Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of Sweden—and a woman. This was supposedly the first time a Pope had met—at least officially—with a woman bishop.  The Pope was somewhat circumspect in addressing Archbishop Jackelén, never using the title “Archbishop.”  She was “esteemed Madame Jackelén,” or “Dear Dr. Jackelén,” or “esteemed sister.” (The use of “sister” is telling as the Pope traditionally refers to his fellow bishops as “brother,” but I am not sure we should read very much into that choice of terms.)
Well the Pope took another small step forward last week when he received an ecumenical delegation from the Finnish Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church of Finland in which he said “I thank the Lutheran Bishop of Helsinki, Irja Askola, for her kind greeting on your behalf.”  This is no sign that the Catholic Church is—at any time soon—going to drop its opposition to the ordination of women but it is a sign that the Church is prepared to face the ecumenical realities of divergent opinions on this  (and other) key principles of both doctrine and discipline. 
Ecumenism has grown much more complicated in the fifty+ years since Vatican II and Unitatis Reintegratio.  Fifty years ago Christians could have spoken with one voice, at least officially, on subjects such as same-sex marriage, abortion, transgendering, and extra-marital sex.  Fifty years ago most Protestant denominations did not—and were not contemplating to—ordain women to the ministries of Word and Sacrament.  (The Methodist Church is one of the exceptions having approved the ordination of women in the mid 1950’s—and there having been ordinations of women among certain Methodist groups even in the late 19th century.) 
Dialogue means an openness to change.  It also presents an opportunity for witness.  There are many among the Krazies who live in mortal terror of ecumenical dialogue because it means that there may be yet more changes in our Catholic way of doing things.  Ecumenical dialogue will have to face the issue of the ordination of women before we can (officially) have sacramental sharing.  Honest dialogue will require that all participants come with open minds and discerning spirits.  Dialogue could present us with sound arguments to rethink our position on any number of issues.  This isn’t compromise—Truth cannot be compromised—but we may come to new and fuller appreciations of the Truth.  Why are people so afraid that they may not possess Truth in all its fullness?  None of us has the fullness of Truth.  The depths of the Mystery of God have yet to be fully explored.  Nor will they ever be.  We cannot stand paralyzed in fear when we are only a few steps into what is an eternal journey.  Bishop Kallistos Ware put it well when wrote of the Hesychast Fathers
Perfection is to be seen not in static but in dynamic terms: the blessed never reach a point where their pilgrimage comes to an end, but through all eternity they continue to advance further and further into the love of God.
When we understand that God did not create us to be a graduate school of dogma but a people who journey together into the Mystery of God the fear of what lies ahead dissipates.  This requires not only some drastic rethinking on our part, but some conversion of our hearts.  But then isn’t the conversion of our hearts what Christian faith is all about? 
Speaking of Lutherans and the need to rethink things: the Reverend Doctor Martin Junge, Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last week issued a “Common Prayer” to prepare for the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation which will occur in 2017.  (Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517 calling for a theological debate on what he—and others—saw as serious flaws in Catholic doctrine and practice.)   It is truly a remarkable sign of change that the Holy See is prepared to view the Reformation not as a tragedy (though in so many ways it was) or a rebellion (which it also was, all rebellions not being bad things) but as an event in the history of the Church that has positive as well as negative aspects.  Along with the krazies, I have no doubt that Gregory XVI and Pius X and Pius XI and dozen of other popes would be scratching their heads and wondering just what malaria from the malodorous Tiber had affected and infected the brains of current Vatican officials that they were preparing to commemorate the Protestant Reformation.  But again, I think this is the benefit of honest dialogue.  We can come to an honest appreciation of the Reformation.  Yes, it divided Western Christendom and yes it caused strife at every level of society and even warfare.  But God brings forth Grace in every situation no matter how sinful.  The Reformation shocked Catholic Europe into Reformations of its own and gave us great saints like Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales and Teresa of Avila.  It made us face into the complicit tolerance of the gross immorality of prelates and priests and princes and set impeccable standards of behavior. (You know, I think we could use another one of these reformations.) It gave us seminaries and catechisms.  It reformed convents and monasteries. It reformed the Liturgy and cleaned out a multitude of superstitious practices that had crept into Catholic devotionalism.  It gave us the Jesuits and the Discalced Carmelites and the observant Franciscans.  It put the bible into the language (and the hands) of the faithful. 
And it didn’t do bad for our Protestant brothers and sisters either.  As for us, it was also for them a mixed blessing.  There was much that was good that was lost.  But it created the great hymnody of the West, beginning with Luther’s own hymns.  It set standards of moral rectitude and reinforced the family as the basic unit of the Church (and thus of society).  It introduced people to the Word of God in scripture.  It strengthened the idea of the community of the faithful which in turn led to the emergence of democratic ideas and institutions.  It too gave us some masterful spiritual writers such as Lancelot Andrews, George Herbert, the poet John Donne, Jakob Böhme, and Martin Luther himself whose devotional writings are well worth looking at.  Protestant spirituality can be seen in such remarkable texts as John Winthrop’s famous sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists: “A City Upon A Hill” or Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Much sound spirituality (as well as even more florid piety) can be found in Protestant hymnody.  The hymns of Charles Wesley are especially to be commended and many are used in Catholic worship since Vatican II—and a few even before. 

We Christians must build a common future. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin in a very different situation: we must stand together or assuredly we shall hang separately.  It is very urgent that we face the threats of secularism and religious extremism with one faith, one determination, and one voice—the voice of Christ in the Gospel.  The tragedy of the Reformation is not that it happened, it is that false disciples want to perpetuate the hatred and strife the Reformation caused and block the Grace that God wishes to bestow on us through our shared history.