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Papal Conclave Date Set: Cardinals Gather to Elect Pope on Tuesday

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The 115 Cardinals present and eligible to vote for the Next Pope have  gathered including Roger the Dodger Cardinal Mahoney from Los Angeles. Mahoney, a man now banned by his successor from public ministry for his complicity in the cover up of numerous sexual crimes by his clergy will be one of those men meeting to elect Benedict XVI’s successor. The date was determined in the 8th pre-game meeting of the Cardinals and did not include the late Stan Musial, or the still living Tony LaRussa or Mark McGuire. I for one cannot imagine a meeting of Cardinals that does not include any of these men or even Bob Gibson or Rogers Hornsby.

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Politics of Papal elections are quite secretive. The process begins with a morning Mass called the “pro eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass.” Following this Mass and a luncheon with a no-host bar the Cardinals head over to the Sistine Chapel where under the hand of God painted on the ceiling by Michelangelo and the great fresco over the altar of the Last Judgement.

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We do not know who will come out of the conclave as Pope. However the conclave, coming on the abdication of Benedict XVI and the Double Top Secret report ordered by Benedict, a report only to be seen by him and whoever comes out of the Conclave as the next Pope. It is believed by some including those that investigated the Vatileaks scandal that the contents were so disturbing that they led directly to Benedict’s resignation.

That aside, Papal elections, as well as the politics of the Curia are always shrouded in secrecy and often conspiracy theories. They make for great writing, especially in the fiction and mystery genre of literature. This undoubtably will be the case again in this election, especially due to the unusual circumstances surrounding this conclave.  I’ll bet that Dan Brown has a new novel brewing for Tom Hanks to make a movie right now.

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The scandals involving Catholic Prelates, Clergy and institutions around the world have rocked the Church to its foundations and for the most part the Church has not responded well. It is floundering and theologian Hans Kung notes that “behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.”

When that magic number of 77 votes is reached and a new Pope is elected white smoke will rise from the chimney of the chapel. I think that the chimney is pretty unremarkable and needs to be replaced with something more Papal  with a bit more bling. After the smoke blows the new Pope will pick a name, I personally like “Bob” because it is kind of blue collar and easy to spell.  He will then get fitted for his new white cassock, of which three sizes will be available. Third World skinny, and White Guy Medium and Large, the Large actually being a 2X just in case the new Pope is not just a man of wisdom but substantial stature.

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I do pray for the Cardinals, as well as the Orioles as the conclave commences and the Orioles continue Spring Training games. I also pledge to pray for whoever is elected as the next Pope. Since I have no clue as to who this will be, with the possible exception of not Cardinal Mahoney that prayer is one of faith and trust in God to work through fallible men to select the Pope. This is something that matters to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide and to non-Roman Catholics alike. I like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York because he is a baseball fan, but since he is an American I don’t expect him to get the job.

Thus while I approach this with a bit of humor and levity I also recognize how serious this is for both the Church and the world.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Pope has Left the Building: Benedict XVI Gracefully Departs Amid Cloud of Scandal and Speculation

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Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger of Bavaria, the first German Pope since Victor who died in 1057 left office in a less than customary manner today. Unlike every one of his predecessors dating back to Celestine V who resigned in 1294 Gregory XII who resigned in 1414 to help end the Avignon schism he did not die in office.

Pope Benedict announced his resignation on February 11th and it stunned the Church and the world. Such an event had not occurred in nearly 600 years, over 700 years for one that resigned that was not under duress. Popes do not resign every day, it is not “normal” for those of us in the modern era. Benedict in his resignation letter cited his “lack of strength of mind and body” as his reason for resigning. After the lengthly suffering of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who spent the last years of his papacy crushed under the weight of Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses leaving much of the day to day operations of the Church to the Curia led by Ratzinger, his friend and the head of the Office of the Congregation for the Faith, one could understand.

Benedict, now 85 years old, battling health concerns and under the increasing weight of scandals involving sexual abuse by clergy including Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Cardinal Michael Patrick O’Brien of the United Kingdom, the Vatican bank corruption and the “Vatileaks” scandal involving his butler resigned.

We probably know all of the factors that went into the resignation of Benedict. He is both lionized by Roman Catholic conservatives and vilified by those who resented his approach to the Church and its relation to the world. He seemed like a man out of his element as Pope, a contemplative theologian thrust by his office and relationship to his predecessor into the most high profile position in Christendom and for that matter in the religious world.

His legacy and impact will be debated and not really known for years because though no longer Pope he lives and his life story is not yet complete. The verdict of history and faith in the case of Pope Benedict XVI is not complete and it is foolhardy for one to attempt to access his Papacy until that life on this earth is ended. Likewise, it is unlikely baring the release of all information concerning Benedict as well as the various scandals in the church and his relationship to them and actions concerning them that we can know the full story.

I hope that Pope Benedict is able to continue his ministry as a former Pope in a manner that helps the Church heal and also be transparent. In this capacity it is possible that Benedict will have the chance to be a force for good that no Pope has ever had the chance, being the first to resign in so long.

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A Final Blessing at Castel Gandolfo 

Perhaps his resignation will be an inspiration to his successors as well as his fellow bishops not to simply remain in office because they can but instead attempt to listen to the Holy Spirit and the the people of God have to say. That being said there is the possibility that Benedict will become a “shadow Pope” influencing and dictating the course of the church remaining in a covent in Vatican City. I hope that will not happen. His words on his departure today and arrival at Castel Gandolfo if taken at face value indicate that he will be content to remain on the sidelines, but only time will tell. His story is not yet complete. As of now it appears that his departure is one of graceful humility and I pray that will be his legacy.

That being said it is up to the men that lead the Roman Catholic Church to be honest in dealing with the seemingly unending waves of scandal and corruption that seem to plague the Church. The time for cover ups has to end and the time for new beginnings, starting with repentance and renewal to begin.

Though I am not a Roman Catholic I will pray for Benedict and whoever his successor may be. I do hope that whoever that man is will be able to lead the church through the coming difficult days in an open and transparent manner and help lead the church to the renewal promised by the Gospel and opened again in Vatican II. There are far too many crisis in the Church and the world not to pray for this.

I hope that the next Pope, like Father Andrew Greeley’s fictional contender for the Papacy Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia says in the novel White Smoke: a Novel About the Next Papal Conclave (New York: Tom Doherty, 1996; pp. 140-143)

“It must be admitted honestly that many of our people have a negative impression of our institution, as of course do many who know us only from outside the Church. They view us as harsh and unbending, as narrow and uninformed, as arrogant and unsympathetic. Are we prepared to say that there are no reasons to justify that view of us? Are we prepared to say that there is nothing in our manner, our style, our institutional organization, our narrowness of vision which has given them that impression?

I for one am not ready to say those things. I candidly believe that we are our own worst enemies because we have often seem to worship not the Father in heaven but our own institutional being. We should not, my fellow Catholics, worship the Church, we should not make the Church an end in itself. The Church clearly is only a means. When the means gets in the way of the end it has become the object of idolatry. When we seem to want to impose that idolatry on others, we appear to many to be religious imperialists. Are we so sure that we never act like idolaters and religious imperialists?”

I think that the new Pope needs to be able to admit this and in doing so liberate the Church to do the work of the Gospel.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Triumph of Ray Lewis: God’s Work and Glory or Typical Christian Spin?

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“To the family: If you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for his glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.” Ray Lewis to CBS Sports before Super Bowl

After the Baltimore Ravens won the Super bowl in 2000 Ray Lewis, their Pro-Bowl Linebacker and MVP of Super Bowl XXXV and two of his friends were involved in a fight after a post-super bowl party. The fight turned out to be an ugly affair and when it was done two men lay dead, the blood of one in Lewis’s limo. The suit Lewis was wearing during the party was never found. Lewis ended up taking a plea bargain in which Lewis plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against his companions and the dropping of double homicide charges.

Since that time Lewis has distinguished himself on the football field, won many accolades and done much charity and community work. He has been active in church and worked for the benefit of many people. For all of those things he should be commended. He is beloved in Baltimore, not merely because he has brought football glory to the city but because of those acts of charity and community involvement.

At the same time his silence about the murders, in which he is one of three men living to know the truth about what happened on that night is troubling. Even more so when I saw his interview before the Super Bowl as well as other comments made back in 2006 to Sports Illustrated in The Gospel According to Ray http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1108943/1/index.htm as his image rehabilitation efforts had propelled him back into the favor of fans and the league.

Do I believe that people can change? Yes. Do I believe that God loves and forgives sinners? By all means. Do I value Ray Lewis as a football legend, man of great civic charity and even faith? Yes. Do I have questions that are unanswered about the unsolved murders and Lewis’s involvement in them? Yes.

In assessing Lewis and his legacy I agree with Boomer Esiason who at the end of the interview this Sunday commended to Sterling Sharpe, the man who conducted the interview: “It’s a complex legacy that we’re talking about here…Because he was involved in a double murder.  And I’m not so sure that he gave us all the answer that we were looking for.  He knows what went on there.  And he can obviously just come out and say it.  He doesn’t want to say it.  He paid off the families.  I get all that.  That’s fine.  But that doesn’t take away from who he is as a football player.  And I appreciate you going down there and asking him that direct question.  I’m not so sure I buy the answer.”

However, for me the questions are even deeper than Lewis’s individual guilt, innocence and involvement in the murders. That is a big issue of its own but I see a bigger issue and that deals with Christians who are willing to bury the murders because Lewis has found God, been successful on the field and done many wonderful things for his community and the disenfranchised in it.

The problem that I see is not new. It is a problem that has been the bane of American Evangelical Christianity for at least a generation. That problem is the “Prosperity Gospel” which puts a premium on earthly success as a measure of the blessing of God on an individual, business, church or organization. In fact, that message basically has been used and abused by a multitude of preachers who have committed crimes against God and man, adultery, murder, greed, avarice, lies. You name it a prosperity preacher has done it and found a way to excuse their sin based on God’s “blessing” of their ministry and earthly success.

The sad thing it is not just preachers, nor is it limited to the “prosperity” crowd. The banal covering up of crimes in order to protect legacies of preachers, churches or popular “Christian leaders” is epidemic in the life of American churches. The incidents are so many that they have become numbing. One only has to look across the denominational spectrum to see the terrible effects ranging from the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandals to unseemly behaviors by church leaders in other denominations to see the rot that has been covered with a veneer of righteousness and deception which cloaks their misdeeds under the vail of temporal power, opulence, political influence and material success.

In his interview Lewis made the comment that “if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for his glory.” Actually Lewis is wrong on this. According to scripture God used many unseemly men for his glory, but the key for those that are honored in scripture is that they acknowledged their sins and sought forgiveness.

I think that the most notable of these was King David, a man who killed the husband of a woman that he was conducting an adulterous affair to cover up her pregnancy. David tried to cover it up but was uncovered by the a prophet named Nathan. David repented and Psalm 51 documents that repentance. However endured an awful price from his sin. The baby died and his son led a rebellion against him. He was forbidden from building the Temple, despite scripture’s proclamation that David was “a man after God’s own heart.”

My issue with what has gone on with Ray Lewis is the fact that the records for his court settlements and pleas are sealed as are the records of his out of court cash settlement with the family of one of the dead men. The truth is known by Lewis and is being covered up by him even while he proclaims his own victimhood, in the 2006 Sports Illustrated article that being booed and criticized was like being “crucified.”

But that is par for the course in modern American Christianity. If Ray Lewis’s actions  were an anomaly it might be more remarkable, but they have become all too common, even the now disgraced former Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahoney is spinning his cover ups of the sexual abuse scandals and claiming victimhood for himself following his suspension from public ministry. No wonder people are fleeing the Church in droves and that the fastest growing segment of the religious belief are “the nones” or those with no religious preference.

The involvement in and cover up of what happened do not take away from Ray Lewis’s remarkable on field accomplishments. He is one of the most gifted and accomplished football players who ever played the game. However, when it is all said and done is that all life is about and is that all that Lewis or any of us want as our legacy?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reaching the Lost Christian Generation

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives.  These people are the unseen, unheard and ignored part of our religious landscape.  In theUnited Stateswe have a very vibrant religious culture which finds its way into much of everyday life.  In fact listening to most of our Presidential candidates you would think that most are in fact Evangelical Christian preachers.

The fact is that despite the popularity of the mega-church and pop-psychology driven church world directed by “pastors” that function more as CEOs, motivational speakers and authors that churches are losing adherents at an increasing rate.  Many of those that are being lost are those that have suffered silently doing everything that is supposed to fulfill a Christian and make them healthy, wealthy and popular get left in the dust because they don’t “get better.”  I call them the “Lost Christian Generation.” There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

For the wounded the church itself becomes their little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of life.  Those that at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness.   But most remain in the church for years living in pain thinking that they must be doing something wrong, that maybe they have angered God or that God has abandoned them.  In fact I would challenge my readers that attend church to take a look around the pews and see that person sitting alone, maybe staring into space, maybe with an expression of deep sadness on their face even as people talk and laugh around them.  The problem is most of us have very little situational awareness and don’t see them and of we do feel uncomfortable or inadequate so we leave them hoping that maybe they’ll get their act together or just go away.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back fromIraqbecause many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.  That experience changed me enough that my former church told me to leave because I had become “too liberal.”

This “God Forsakenness” sometimes leads those people that are part of the “lost Christian generation” to believe that death appears more comforting than life in the present. For such people, they live “Good Friday” everyday feeling that they are truly God Forsaken.   I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members. Likewise I believe that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do.   I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience was due to from my time in Iraq and the trauma of my return.  That time was absolutely frightening.  Church was no longer a comfort and my long established spiritual practices no longer brought peace or a feeling of communion with God. It was so bad that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.

For those clergy this is an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.  It becomes worse when church institutions deny or ignore their claims which has been an unfortunate occurrence in many Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, particularly in Europe and North America where new revelations of clerical abuse seem to show up with alarming frequency.

The feeling that people who go through a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that they feel God feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  This is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when thoughts of death or just going to sleep are much preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them.  I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to; in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry.

I do not think that it is enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” or quote other scriptures when they have been pushed beyond the “red line” and are breaking down.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

We have to be honest and not turn a blind eye to the transgressions of Christians over the centuries.  We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of those that are living their own dark night of the soul or have given in to despair.

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy and maybe, just maybe give hope to this “Lost Christian Generation” that may allow them to return.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Anne Rice and the Exodus

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There is an exodus occurring in American Christianity.  This is not new. George Barna has reported a lot about disturbing trends in American Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity.  These trends span denominational lines and having watched them and seen a lot of anecdotal evidence myself over the past 20 or so years I believe that they are now having a cascade effect with visible effects.  Before the effects were covered over as mega-churches, seeker-friendly churches, the so-called “church growth movement” carved out rather large chunks out of denominational churches of all types.  The common charge leveled against “traditional” denominational churches by the new non-denominational start-ups was that they were out of touch with people, hypocritical, immersed in promoting “boring” doctrine and not keeping up with the times in their worship style, preaching or service format.  The new churches more often than not minimized the major doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, for all practical purposes reduced the Bible to a pop-psychology manual that Christians were to use to get all they wanted from God, particularly health and wealth but also self-esteem and just plain old feeling good.  Those that taught anything that deviated back toward orthodoxy usually focus on things like eschatology or on moral issues, the “culture war” and align themselves closely with political movements and parties, sometimes becoming more focused on winning the political war  than actually proclaiming the Gospel.

As a result much of the Christian landscape is dominated by churches that understand little of the Christian faith, no longer see value in practicing things like Baptism or Holy Communion and while they preach about “Biblical absolutes” in regard to abortion, an admittedly abhorrent practice and homosexuality they seem to gloss over other many moral issues including divorce, sex outside of marriage, materialism, greed and avarice, so long as those practicing them are on “our side.” Likewise they are prone to give people who actually oppose the Christian faith a pass if they fall on the same side of the political aisle.  We are simple selective literalists.

As Barna’s studies have shown Evangelical Christians have worse rates of divorce, teenage sex outside of marriage and other moral problems than those that do not claim to be Christians.  Likewise the lifestyles of many of the leaders of the Evangelical movement are prone to gross material excess and every year we see some Evangelical leader or leaders involved in some kind of sexual, financial or sometimes criminal activity.  To me it seems that American Christianity is doctrinally impoverished, politically intolerant and morally bankrupt.

So Anne Rice announces that she is leaving Christianity but not Jesus and catalogued a list of things that she found that she could not live with inside the church.  Since she announced this she has been the talk of the town. To those cynical to organized religion, though why we call any religion in America organized is beyond me, this is a boon.  For those defending the faith it is also a boon as they have an identifiable “traitor to the faith” to go after rather than some amorphous concept or idea.  Real heretics are so much more fun to go after.  I have been amazed but not surprised at the number of articles condemning Rice.  Most even if they don’t say it in the article they basically articulate the same thing that many of the early Church Fathers stated in regard to heretics and schismatics that left the church for the various heresies of the day almost all of which denied the nature of Christ, either his deity or humanity.

Rice has not done that. She has not denied the deity or humanity of Christ, his message of salvation or anything. She has protested and repudiated the outward actions of Christians and the institutional Church.  Now whether one agrees with her assessment is another matter but she has not necessarily denied Christ.  Her story is not yet completed, she may reconcile again with the Catholic Church or another Church.  To condemn her at this point would be similar to condemn Francis of Assisi when he walked out of the church.

In fact to condemn Ms Rice at this point is to miss the point of her protest.  Her protest is that the Church does not live the Gospel.  Her critics almost universally attack her for her support of homosexuals.  However a large part of that support is because her son is homosexual and to condemn her as a mother to that has lost one child at the age of 6 and is widowed for protesting the treatment that her son and other homosexuals have received from Christians is unfair to her and to them regardless of what one believes about homosexuality.  It seems to me that homosexuality is about the only unpardonable sin to many American Christians and that is the biggest criticism that I see in what her critics have written. They may talk about her separating herself from the Church and thus Christ but it really seems more to be about why she did so.   We Christians will tolerate about every sort of perversion and unfaithful action of people in the church to include leaders so long as it is not homosexuality. Divorce, no problem; gluttony, not an issue; murder, as long as it is state sanctioned; materialistic greed as long as we can link it to our own and the church’s prosperity; discrimination against people based on gender, race or religion, no problem so long as it is the name of national security or in the interest of our political party or church organization.  The argument against her is a red herring to divert people from the real issue which is the dismal state of the church, in belief and practice in the United States.

You see the argument used against Ms. Rice that by separating herself from the Church that she has separated herself from Christ and is “in schism” itself is disingenuous.  Every church body in this country can be accused of being in schism from someone and that includes the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who to this day believe the other to be in schism.  Likewise for Protestants, especially those in independent churches to call her into question is hypocritical, many of those churches were born in schism and have few discernible beliefs or practices that link them to historic Christianity except that they “believe in Jesus.”  Protestantism itself is a “protest” against the Church and its practices, the Catholic Church to be sure but nonetheless at its heart a protest that is little different from that of Ms. Rice.

You see that is the problem with American Christianity. We want to selectively apply scripture and the teachings of the early Church to other Christians that we don’t agree with and that is something that we all do to one degree or another and it does not matter if we are conservatives or liberals, Catholics or Protestants, seeker friendly or traditionalist. No matter who we are or what our theological stance we all somehow ensure that we exclude someone else or some group from the Kingdom of God and to make it more fun we can all find something in Scripture or tradition to buttress our position.  As much as we want it to be the issue is not belief or doctrine, but practice and just who we allow the grace of God to extend to.

I don’t think that it is right to single Ms. Rice out after all let’s be truthful if a person has left a church for any issue including doctrine they are in schism.  If a person has been part of a church split at the local or the denominational level where they have left their “mother church” they too are in schism.  If someone leaves their church for a season or forever they have done the same thing that Ms Rice has done and I don’t see anyone out there making this point or going after all of us that are in schism from someone.

Let’s face it there are in the United States alone anywhere from 25,000-40,000 distinct denominational groups depending on your source. David Barrett lists 34,000 separate faith groups in the world that consider themselves to be Christian (David B. Barrett, et al., “World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” Oxford University Press, (2001)) In fact, many consider themselves alone to be the only “true” Christian church. Now if you ask me that sounds like a whole lot of schism going on and just looking at the numbers there are a lot of people outside the walls of someone else’s church and therefore outside of the grace of God.

So with all of this in place I have to go back to some of my original statements of how we got to where we are and why Ms. Rice’s “defection” is symptomatic of a far bigger problem for American Christianity. We have over the past 40 years or so since the societal revolt of the 1960s been collectively as Christians been laying turds in our own punchbowl. We have renounced any semblance of coherent doctrine because “doctrine is boring.” Thus when we look at the most popular preachers in the country we see that one, T.D. Jakes holds a position on the Godhead (Jesus only modalism) which has been condemned by the church for like 1700 years or so. The there is Joel Osteen who seems like a nice guy but seems to have no recognizable Christian doctrine in his preaching, except that God loves us. I have no problem with that but that isn’t all that there is. Of course there is Rick Warren and before him Bill Hybels both of whom have taken the non-denominational identification to new heights.  I won’t even go into morality as I mentioned that in a recent post about the marital problems of another big time preacher, Benny Hinn who has promulgated more heresy than I can list.  On the Catholic side we have a church that despite official statements seems to still be protecting criminals and sexual predators and silencing those in the Church who raise their voices in protest to include the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn the driving force behind the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.

For better or worse the church in the United States has become the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”  We have tossed out the riches of 2000 years of faith, replaced them with religious mumbo jumbo that most closely aligns with our special interest and when people go from church to church or drop the faith completely we wonder why?

As a military Chaplain I have had a unique perspective on the state of Christianity in this country. My experience of how people classify themselves religiously nearly mirrors what is seen in the work of the Barna Research Group and the American Religious Identification Surveys of 2001 and 2008, by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. What I have seen in almost 20 years of being a chaplain is both a decline in those that identify themselves as Christians and those that while they identify themselves as Christians have no consistent practice or identification with any particular denomination or group. The numbers claiming “No Religious Preference” and “Christian No Denomination” seem to go up every year.  Likewise the numbers identifying themselves as Wiccan or any number of other more earth based or eastern religions is increasing.  Many of these young men and women were raised as Christians or had some kind of “Christian” experience before going off to what they are now.

Barna notes that “There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions.” (“Annual study reveals America is spiritually stagnant,” Barna Research Group, Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/) and that “evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994….less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria.” (“Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices,” The Barna Group, 2005-APR-11, at:http://www.barna.org/ )

The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 notes other troubling facts for American Christianity.  Among them:

The percentage of American adults that identify themselves with a specific religion dropped from 89.5% to 79.9%:

Americans who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86.2 to 76.0 — a loss of 10.2 percentage points in 18 years — about 0.6 percentage points per year.

Americans identifying themselves as Protestant dropped from 60.0 to 50.9%.

Catholics declined from 26.2% to 25.1%

The Catholic population in the Northeast fell: From 1900 to 2008, it went from 50% in New England to 36%, and from 44% to 37% in New York state. Apparently to immigration, it rose during the same interval from 29% to 37% in California, and 23% to 32% in Texas.

Religious Jews declined from1.8% to 1.2%

The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca. According to Religion Link “Specifically, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000, and the same held true for neo-pagans, who went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008.”

Finally 15.0% (14.1%) do not follow any organized religion. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. (Cathy Grossman, “Charting the unchurched in America,” USA Today, 2002-MAR-7, at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/dcovthu.htm)

The ARIS survey noted the following about those that left or switched churches:

About 16% of adults have changed their identification.

For the largest group, the change was abandoning all religion.

Baptists picked up the largest number of any religion: 4.4 million. But they also lost 4.6 million.

Roman Catholics lost the greatest number, 9.5 million. However, they also picked up 4.3 million.

Those are just the numbers. To look within we have to look at behaviors and we find that American Christians on the whole are very similar to those with no religion whatsoever. Rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and other social indicators often show that American Christians differ little from and sometimes are in worse shape than their non-Christian neighbors.

If we look at reasons for people leaving the faith Barna has the answer. To put it in Padre Steve terminology “we don’t treat people well.”  Barna notes: “Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” (http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/362-millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain)

Instead of condemning Anne Rice maybe we as Christians, Churches and Church leaders need to get over defending ourselves and get ourselves and our churches right with God, one another and our neighbors. Maybe Anne Rice is a prophet and we should thank her even if we don’t agree with all that she says. Maybe we should stop referring to her as a traitor to her faith.

Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote from prison:

Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a “secular” life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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High Crimes and “Miss” Demeanors: The Catholic Church Equates Women’s Ordination with Pedophilia

Note: This is a serious post that unfortunately has been on my mind for some time and I have not written about it until now.  It is important enough for me to interrupt my latest baseball post and I realize that some readers will not like what I say; I might even get some hate mail as I have gotten it for much less but here it goes.

It seems that the Roman Catholic Church is finally making some changes to policy and possibly Canon Law to ensure that clergy that are convicted of sexual assault, rape or pedophilia receive faster censure or maybe even punishment in the Church outside of what various national or state governments do.  Of course this came after years, albeit decades of chicanery where the Church either through omission or commission aided and abetted many of the men suspected, charged or convicted of sexual abuse, assault or other crimes against children as well as adults entrusted to their spiritual and sometimes their physical care.  It is a policy decision that moves in the right direction but seems to be perfunctory and in light of the actions of the church hierarchy over many decades to cover up crimes committed by clergy seem hollow and unrepentant and an insult to victims who still desire justice even as the Vatican continues to fight to keep clergy from being prosecuted by the courts of various nations.  To make matters worse it uses the same letter to equate the ordination of women as a “major crime against the Church” or in other words equivalent to pedophilia, child sexual abuse and a host of other crimes whose victims cry out for justice.  I just don’t get it.

Now before the reader thinks that I am on an anti-Catholic crusade be assured I am most assuredly not. I find even with all of its faults as well as recent retrenchment on many initiatives that were once heralded by Catholics and Protestants alike, much to be commended in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact in the late 1990s I explored the possibility of “crossing the Tiber” and wrote two very orthodox and even serious articles on the Church in the New Oxford Review. Those articles actually got me banned from writing for several years by a former Archbishop in my church who is now coincidently a Roman Catholic Layman who writes for Catholic Online.  Back then stuff was too Catholic for him, seems almost like Karma to me, now he defends the Curia and I question it.  Things have changed over the years.  Many of my closest friends in ministry have been and are Roman Catholic Priests, many of who feel as I do and fear retribution if they speak up on any of this.  Needless to say I am dumbfounded at the statements and actions coming out of the Vatican or directly from Pope Benedict XVI.  It almost seems that these actions and statements occur on a weekly basis. If you ask me such statements and attitudes make the Church hierarchy appear to be defensive, vengeful, arrogant, isolated, vindictive, petty and completely unaware of how these actions make the Church look to a watching world.  But then I wonder if they really care about this.

To be honest I don’t know what to make of this. The Church has survived 2000 years or so and survived a lot worse crisis than it is experiencing in this new millennium however it seems that the present administration in the Vatican has built a wall to “protect” itself from actual accountability and responsibility for the criminal acts of some of its clergy which in turn victimizes the victims of these men again and again.  The whole attitude and action seems without grace and heartless despite the formal statements from the Pope and other prelates, however as my old sophomore football coach Duke Pasquini used to say “your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”  Words are cheap and the Vatican’s failure to first discipline its own and second to turn them over to the state for temporal judgment is arrogance that Jesus would have condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees for, not what he expects of his Church to practice.  Actions speak louder than words and the Vatican’s actions damn it in the eyes of a watching world and this friends  is nothing to rejoice over or gloat about even for those that have an ax to grind against the church.  It is cause mourning for it taints people’s view of God in a decidedly negative way both believers and unbelievers, God gets the blame more often than not for the sins of his people.  If Benedict is serious about wanting a leaner church he will get it as ordinary Catholics, especially in the west will vote with their feet leaving only those that agree with this perverted view of the Church’s role in the world.

There are two things that I want to note before I end this little essay.  The first was the censure of Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna and the driving force behind the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, a renowned theologian, pastor who was considered as a potential Pope.  Schoenborn accused retired Cardinal Angelo Soldano, the former Vatican Secretary of State of blocking investigations requested by him of clerics accused or suspected of criminal sexual activity.  He also said that Soldano had caused “massive harm” when he dismissed claims of clerical abuse as “petty gossip” in his Easter sermon.  In censuring Schoenborn the Vatican announced that brother Cardinals could not criticize one another but only the Pope.  I am sorry but when the Church, any church silences dissent and even constructive criticism from its highest ranking prelates then there is a problem because it demonstrates that the leadership views the preservation hierarchy and the rights of the Papal state as more important than the Gospel and justice for the people of God.  Somehow I can hear Jesus call out “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees and all that.”  Rome is burning and the Pope and the Curia continue to try to douse the fire with gasoline.  No wait, napalm it’s stickier and burns better.  They are a disaster.

The second came the same day and in the same document that the Vatican will in making it easier to investigate sexual abuse in the church. The document declared it a Major crime against the Church” to ordain a woman as a Priest. Now this is not new the Vatican has been excommunicating women and those that ordained them for years.  However, declaring it to be a major crime puts it at the same level as pedophilia and other sexual crimes of clergy.  How do they compare?  Oh wait, female Priests put the souls of their parishioners in mortal danger even more so than male Priests who physically, emotionally and sexually abuse those in their charge.

The ordination of women may not be allowed by the Roman Catholic or for that matter my Church but to call it a major crime against the Church and equate it with pedophilia and sexual abuse of minors is abhorrent.  When the Roman Catholic Church hides behind diplomatic immunity as a nation state and claims religious persecution when someone inside or outside of its walls calls it to account it shows a cold and ruthless face to the world.  It says that it wants to punish those guilty of such heinous crimes but at the same time it shields them from criminal prosecution by the state without providing any discipline of its own.  The Vatican claims to be a state with all the rights and privileges thereof but refuses to put these criminals in its own jails and punish them.  In fact I say hire more Swiss Guards, open up a jail in the basement of the Vatican do a little rendition and torture in some third world dictatorship put them on the Papal G5 send them to Rome and give these criminals a life sentence in the catacombs somewhere.  Well that won’t happen so were left with the Vatican continuing to protect the guilty and if it does anything try them in ecclesiastical courts which do nothing more than mete out spiritual judgments that do absolutely nothing to help the victims.

Jesus I’m sure would be really welcome especially by hanging out with people like Mary Magdalene and even the Apostle Paul who seemed to allow women to have a lot of authority in places that he visited, people like Lydia in Philippi as well as Priscilla of Priscilla and Aquila fame. Interestingly enough many commentators and Scripture Scholars believe that Priscilla may have written the book of Hebrews and some make a very convincing case for this.  My Lord it is no wonder that people don’t want to have anything to do with the Christian faith when the mother Church of the west engages in such activities.

I really don’t know what to say when Catholics come to me about such things because I do not ever want to be accused of leading Catholics away from their Church or faith. As an Anglo-Catholic with strong pro-Roman leanings I encourage them to stay and be salt and light knowing that all Papacy’s end and magisterial eras come and go and that the Church has somehow made it 2000 years through worse crisis than the current day.  That is cold comfort to them and I wish that I could do better but it is what it is and unfortunately Rome continues to burn as the Pope and Curia call for more napalm with which to further engulf the church that they pretend to defend.  It seems that they are about to destroy the church in order to save it and I cannot understand where that fits in the context of God’s love and care for his people, especially the lost, the least and the lonely, those whose prayers like those of the sinner versus the Pharisee are heard by God.  God help the Roman Catholic Church and even more those victimized by its clergy in such ungodly ways.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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