A Progressive Christian Reflects on the Papal Visit to the US

His reception was like that of a rock star. Wherever he went, crowds gathered while the media was transfixed by his presence. Other major news took a backseat to each event on his itinerary. For five days in September, the attention of the United States was on the head of the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis.

Now that the trip is over and the excitement has waned, I am better able to reflect on the various aspects of the Pope’s visit to the United States. While my family was Catholic, we all ended our involvement in the Catholic Church in the 1980’s. Since 1986, I’ve served as an ordained minister in a Protestant context. Today, I consider myself as Progressive Christian. I recognize my personal journey colors and shapes my perspective of the papal visit. I also am aware that many people of my generation chose to leave the Catholic Church and have found spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.

While Pope Francis was in the United States, I carefully followed the news reports and read the transcripts of all of his speeches and homilies. I have a deep appreciation of his focus on the common good, the importance of society to care for all its members, to live by the Golden Rule, for government to act for the betterment of people, and for people to live together with respect and dignity. The focus of his words echoed what I understand to represent the authentic teachings of Jesus. It was a refreshing change from the voices of conservative evangelical Christians in the US which are often filled with rage and hatred. In many ways, the public image of Pope Francis during this trip was nothing less than inspiring. For that I am grateful.

At the same time, I also recognize that there is a profound discontinuity between what the Pope said in the United States and some of the things that actually occurred during the visit. Further, the Pope’s words in other contexts do not reflect the same respect for human dignity for which he advocated in the United States. Among the points of discontinuity are three areas of which I am gravely concerned:

1. While speaking of the importance of women as leaders and the role of religious sisters and nuns in the Catholic Church, women were absent for leadership roles in all of the events during the Pope’s visit. That was even true at the vesper service in New York — a service which does not require the leadership of a priest. If women were respected as people of dignity, such a conspicuous absence would not have occurred. Instead, women remained as spectators reflecting the theology of the Catholic Church. (Note that the reason given for not ordaining women in the Catholic Church is that Jesus didn’t ordain women. In fact, men were not ordained by Jesus. The priesthood didn’t exist until centuries after the death of Jesus. Historic records show that from the Biblical era through the early centuries of the history of Christian churches, both women and men led local Christian communities.)

2. While the Pope frequently spoke of the needs of the poor and visited those in prison, he also canonized a “saint” commonly known to have been an agent of the subjugation and genocide of Native peoples. Junipero Serra wrote documents on how to treat Native peoples which included beating them into submission. Yes, he was not as harsh as other Spanish conquistadors, but he used force, physical abuse, and captivity as tools for conversion. Whatever devotion to faith and church Serra may have had, it doesn’t make up for his inhumanity to the Native people of California.

3. While the Pope avoided condemnation of sexual minorities during this visit and asked the bishops of the US to engage in dialogue, avenues for dialogue were shut. During the Philadelphia World Conference on Families, which Pope Francis attended, only one session was scheduled on the topic of homosexuality. That session was moved last minute from the main session hall which accommodated 10,000 to a much smaller meeting room seating only a thousand. News reports stated that thousands of people were locked out and unable to attend. Only one gay man was permitted to speak. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, barred LGBT Catholics from holding a workshop at a nearby Catholic church. Dialogue on this topic is clearly a myth. In the past, Pope Francis has referred to marriage equality as “a destructive attack on God’s plan” and “a move of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” The Pope also viewed gay and lesbian equal rights as discrimination against children. (Note that he’s never been this vitriolic about pedophilia.) He’s also compared transsexual individuals to nuclear weapons.

The media has cast these three issues as “civil rights” issues confronting the Catholic Church. This claim asserts a tension between the modern world and traditional theology. While there are issues of civil rights involved in terms of society at large, the glaring issue for me is the theological inconsistency reflected in each of these issues. If, as Pope Francis reminds us, that each human being is sacred and should be treated with respect, then the Catholic Church needs to end its mistreatment of women, ethnic groups, and sexual minorities and include members of these groups as full and equal members of the Church. While Pope Francis waxes eloquently of the need for families to have mothers and fathers, the role of women is once again conspicuously absent at the current Synod on Families. Instead, senior white men who are celibate will frame the discussion on family life.

To be honest, I have little hope for change within the Roman Catholic Church. Even when confronted by objective, obvious facts, the institution simply entrenches in its long held positions — no matter how wrong those positions may be. Perhaps the best example of this was how the Vatican resolved the excommunication of Galileo for his scientific observations demonstrating that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the erroneous view that Earth was the center of the universe. In 1990, the Catholic Church could not admit that it made an error. Instead, the official statement was that the Catholic Church’s “verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune” Cardinal Raztinger (Pope Benedict XVI), February 15, 1990. In other words, while the edict of excommunication was removed, the Vatican insisted that it was right to excommunicate Galileo. If the Catholic Church cannot admit its own error about the planets of the solar system revolving around the Sun, it’s difficult to image how it could admit to the ways it actively harms people through discrimination and failed theological positions.

Pope Francis asked that American pray for him. I do remember him in my prayers: that he and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church will have a change of heart and learn to treat all people with respect rather than subjugating women, members of various racial and ethnic groups, and sexual minorities. Perhaps his heart will soften and he will come to understand the harm he also perpetuates in the world.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Sex: Good, Better, Best — Remembering Fr. John McNeill

The drive across Pennsylvania is longer than most people realize. This one took about six hours. I was traveling from Pittsburgh to a secluded part of the Pocono Mountains. The purpose of the trip was for a spiritual retreat.

On one of the summits in the Pocono Mountains is an ecumenical center called Kirkridge. In the early 1980’s, I made several retreats there. The ethos of Kirkridge is a blend of Celtic Christianity and social justice activism. Even 25 years ago, long before the term “locally sourced” food was part of our vocabulary, food at Kirkridge was prepared with a mindfulness of the environment and reflected the region. While I met several people on my visits to Kirkridge who proved to be particularly instrumental in my life, one of the more notable individuals was a Jesuit priest: John J. McNeil. Recently, I learned of John’s passing, which caused me to reflect more deeply about those times when I initially met him.

Among John’s many life experiences, he was a World War II veteran and Nazi POW, who later became an activist against the Vietnam War. John was also one of the very early gay rights activists, a psychotherapist, and a professor of ethics. When I met him, his blue Irish eyes danced in an elf-like way. As the speaker on this retreat, he posed an alternate approach to sexual ethics within a Christian context.

Traditional sexual ethics in the Christian Church generally views sexual expression, at best, as something that may be good but which should be kept for marriage. There are also strains within Christian ethics that view sexual pleasure quite negatively. In fact, there are perspectives within Christianity that have held that all pleasure in life should be avoided. When it comes to sexual intercourse, even sex within marriage was often considered sinful if the clear intention was not procreation. Procreation was the justification for having sexual intercourse.

Without going into a complicated overview of how these beliefs about human sexuality developed in Christianity, let me just cut to the chase: there’s really little Biblical or early church evidence to support the negative views of human sexuality and sexual pleasure that have been prevalent in the history of Christianity. Instead, there is strong evidence that supports a position of human sexuality as something profoundly good and to be enjoyed as a gift.

Starting from this latter position, McNeil suggested that perhaps we needed to re-think human sexual ethics. What if we started from the position of saying that human sexuality and the pleasure experienced in sexual encounters was in itself good. While there are clearly times when the gift of human sexuality is not used for good, as with rape or incest, perhaps an ethical position that understood sexual experience as good could be understood on an ethical continuum of good-better-best.

While it may seem trite to view human sexuality morally and ethically on a continuum of good-better-best, it’s a perspective that marks a profound change. Affirming that our sexuality is something good and positive about us, we are presented with the opportunity to grow into becoming fully embodied individuals who accept pleasure not only as part of our lives but as a gift. It is from this perspective that McNeill suggested that just as devote individuals give thanks before and after a meal, that it would be appropriate to pray in thanksgiving before and after a sexual experience. Better and best sex, from an ethical perspective, would be viewed in terms of the ways in which human sexuality draws people more deeply into faith-filled relationships that celebrate each other. For human sexuality to be viewed as good in itself would dramatically change how we discuss sex as well as our approach to education on human sexuality and support for the physical dimension of loving relationships. Sexuality would become another part of human experience, essentially no different from any other aspect of our experience.

Of course, McNeill’s proposal for a new ethic for human sexuality didn’t get much traction among moral theologians. But I think that Christian theology is often very slow to change because we are locked into antiquated philosophical paradigms that make little sense in a changing world. While we don’t ask scientists to learn flat-world paradigms for their fields, theologians begin their study with approaches from previous millennia that don’t represent our shared understanding of the Earth, cosmos, human life, or spiritual experience today. Locked into the past, Christian theology has become increasingly irrelevant to people in our era despite the new insights that have been offered by people like John McNeill.

I am thankful for people of courage like Fr. John McNeill. He embodied his convictions and lived them with courage. In doing so, he made the world a better place for very many people

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Inner Darkness: Finding the Light

I listened carefully as she spoke. There was a sense of deliberateness to her words. She conveyed her story with authenticity, yet the story was one I’ve heard from others. Now middle-aged, she recounted how she grew up in a family and church that practiced a conservative, evangelical form of Christianity. They were the only ones to be saved. Others were doomed. As a young adult, she broke out of this system because she couldn’t believe her friends, who were Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic, were the damned people her church and family had condemned. Without the support of family and church, she was adrift. It wasn’t long before a serious drug addiction developed. That was the only way she found to cope with the inner pain. However, in time, she made her way to rehab. Now twenty years clean and sober, she’s a practicing Christian in a major Protestant denomination.

While I respect the authenticity of her story and the reality she presented, I am troubled with something she said. She spoke about finding hope in a more moderate, mainline Christianity because, “as I look inside, all I see is darkness. Christianity helps me find the light.”

It is true that her statement conveys something that seems positive. It is an ancient statement as well. Even the first Christians understood the message of Jesus as being one of light. What troubled me was the statement, “as I look inside, all I see is darkness.” Isn’t that just another way to claim original sin or what was later called the doctrine of depravity? The doctrine of depravity, rooted in the work of 16th Century John Calvin, contends that in us there is nothing good. It troubles me that this woman, even after all of her work toward wholeness, continues to see herself as flawed, broken, and filled with darkness.

Consider for a moment a time when you held an infant or spent time with a very young child. Or perhaps you’ve watched as a mother provided care and comfort to a baby. In reflecting on these simple experiences of infants and children, it is clear to me that we each came into this world with innocence. Because we were born essentially helpless, we required care and nurturing. Any darkness we find in ourselves as adults wasn’t something with which we were born. Instead, we were born full of light, hope, and promise.

It’s not just that my experience that leads me to this conclusion about the innate goodness of human beings. As I Christian, I understand the epic story of creation in Genesis as describing this fundamental goodness that is essential to who we are. The epic recounts that we were created in the image and likeness of the Divine. The Holy One declared that we were very good from the moment of our creation. While the story itself is metaphoric, it conveys a profound understanding of human nature. Because of it, I am inspired to continue to look for goodness in myself and in others. When I find darkness or something blocking the light in me, I understand it as something in need of healing or representing an area of my life in which I need compassion. Something is out of balance and requires attention so that the inner light can shine.

Again, while I don’t question the authenticity of the woman’s story, I want to encourage her to go further. It seemed as though she had likely spent a great deal of time working with a mental health counselor and in 12-step groups. It seemed to me that the healing of her soul, her deep inner self, needed something more. From my perspective, this is the realm of intentional spiritual practice that is contemplative in nature. A regular practice of meditation, perhaps coupled with journaling, and work with a spiritual director could prove to be very helpful in finding the light within. That process is likely to be painful because of the deep wounds and scarring over those wounds have likely resulted in her sense of inner darkness. However, along the way toward greater wholeness and the experience of her own goodness, there will also be times of consolation — of deep inner peace and joy.

For whatever reason, somehow Christian writers like Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin just got it wrong. They looked inside and saw darkness. They thought that this was part of the human condition and had to attribute it to something. Augustine created the concept of original sin because he could find no other explanation for his experience of darkness. Calvin thought original sin wasn’t sufficient, so he went further with his concept of fundamental depravity. They missed that the darkness many people carry with them is a result of pain, hardship, and abuse experienced along life’s journey. While it may take time and intentionality to allow light to shine through the darkness, the inner light remains within each of us.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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