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

ITALY-VATICAN-POPE-HELICOPTER

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.

Italy Vatican Pope

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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On the Anniversary of my 16th Year of Ordination to the Diaconate

“So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

“My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…” From the Ordination of a Deacon, 1979 Book of Common Prayer

In the more liturgical churches, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox the first major order of ordination is to the Diaconate, or to be a Deacon. In other denomination men and women are appointed as deacons but not ordained. In the non-Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican there is a wide variety of service done by deacons and deaconesses everything from being the ruling board of a local church to serving in various ministries of service within the church.

I was ordained as a Deacon 16 years ago tonight on hot, humid and stormy night in Maryland. I was one of six men ordained that night as Deacons, all of who were bound for the Priesthood. I was already an ordained minister in an Evangelical Protestant Church and was serving as a civilian hospital chaplain and as a Major in the Army Reserve Chaplain Corps. I had began a spiritual pilgrimage to an Anglo-Catholic way of life in seminary while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas.

The office of Deacon or Deaconess in the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions is different from the other major orders, the Presbyter (Priest) and Episcopate (Bishop). It is and always has been about the ministry to service, assisting the Bishop and Priests with the care of the poor, sick, weak and lonely as well as preaching the Gospel. It was established in the 6th Chapter of the Book of Acts when the Apostles, harried by the widows of non-Jewish members of the church who felt that they were being ignored. The Apostles laid hands on 7 men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paraemus and Nicholas. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 gives criteria for the kind of person to be ordained as deacons and Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan specifically mentions women serving as deacon who he calls deaconesses.

In the west the office of deacon languished for nearly a millennia being used only as a stop on the way to a man being ordained as a Priest. It remained very active in the Christian East and some Orthodox Churches retained the office of Deaconess. The office experienced a revival in the West during the 20th Century with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches revitalized the office and returned to early tradition in appointing men to be permanent as well as transitional Deacons. The Second Vatican Council noted that Deacons should be “Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all'” Lumen gentium, n. 29 cf. Ad Phil., 5,2, ed. Funk, I, p. 300)

Deacons can preach, baptize assist at celebration of the Eucharist, give communion and in the Catholic and Anglican traditions celebrate a marriage. Deacons are allowed to marry, unless they are transitional Deacons in the Roman Catholic church who are being prepared for ordination to the Priesthood.

For those ordained as transitional Deacons, those who eventually are ordained as Priests, and in some cases those who later are consecrated as Bishops, they are not to lose that call to be servants of God’s people. This sadly is not always the case.  It is all too easy for a cleric to become more concerned with his or her position in the hierarchy and the place of the Church in society over serving those that come to the Church broken, wounded and needy, especially in need of care and love, those rejected by the affluent and abused by supposed Christians.

Fr Rupert Mayer SJ

For me the ordination to the Diaconate was important. It stressed to me that ordination was not simply about preaching or ruling in the Church. Of course I knew that but the fact that charge committed to Deacons is first service of the weak, the poor, the sick and the lonely. It has been a while since I re-read the Ordination Liturgy. It is a compelling reminder in a world where the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely are continually abused and ignored by the rich, the entitled, the powerful and the criminal elements or even governments, that the Christian, particularly those men and women ordained to the Diaconate must be servants first, not rulers or worldly power brokers. Father Rupert Mayer SJ of Munich who was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis through much of the Hitlerite rule was a leading champion of Munich’s poor during the Weimar Hyper-Inflation and during the Great Depression. A former Army Chaplain in the First World War who was wounded at the front losing a leg he said: “If out of the ten who ask for alms there are nine who are not in need of them, and if through fear of that happening, I refuse my help to one really needy person, this would cause me immense suffering. I would rather give to all ten and thus avoid the danger of being lacking in charity.”

When I was in High School and College there was a song that was popular in contemporary Christian music. It was called Make Me a Servant by a lady named Kelly Willard who sang with Maranatha! Music.  The words are fitting for all Christians who are called by Jesus to be “servants of all” but especially for all who are ordained or have ever been ordained as Deacons.

Make me a servant, Humble and meek

Lord let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayers of my heart always be

Make me a servant, Make me a servant, Make me a servant today…

I certainly don’t always live up to this high calling, but it is something that I try to do. It is simple, but so hard, but of all things what the followers of Jesus are called to do. Today has been a day of reflection even as I cared for some people going through terrible times. I do pray that my life will be more reflective of God’s grace in my dealings with all people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Bishop Jenky’s Obama and Hitler, Stalin, Bismarck and Clemenceau Comparison: Bad History, Bad Theology and Bad Politics

Bishop Daniel Jenky 

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” Thomas Jefferson

I normally would not criticize a Roman Catholic Bishop for speaking out on he through were legitimate threats to the Catholic faith. However, when a fellow Christian cleric of any rank or denomination chooses to become a bad historian and use historical lies and distortions to demonize an opponent I as a clergyman and American must point it out. I have waited several days to publish this post and reworked it a number of times simply because I do, even if I disagree with them respect their office.

What sparked my ire was when Roman Catholic Bishop of the diocese of Peoria Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky wildly and stupidly overstepped his knowledge of history and American Religious Freedom. Bishop Jenky in his homily to a Catholic Men’s group during the Second Sunday of Easter Mass made this comment:

“In the late 19th century, Bismark (sic) waged his “Kulturkamf,” a culture war against the Roman Catholic Church, closing down every Catholic school and hospital, convent and monastery in Imperial Germany. Clemenceau, nicknamed “the priest eater,” tried the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. 

In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, President Obama – with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.

Now things have come to such a pass in our beloved country that this is a battle that we could lose, but before the awesome judgement seat of Almighty God this is not a war where any believing Catholic may remain neutral.”

I am a big defender of all religious freedom, even that of the prelates of the Roman Catholic Church to state the beliefs of their church clearly and without even the slightest fear of persecution. However I am not a fan of clerics using their pastoral role to become the partisan voice of any religious party. Bishop Jenky’s comments in his homily go well beyond voicing his disagreement with the Obama Administration, or for that matter with the policies of the Reagan and both Bush administrations who actually enunciated similar policies.  Likewise even more importantly he used the most vile of historical distortions to buttress his partisan opinion.

If President Obama was a Republican grousing for “pro-life” votes by giving lip-service to Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Jenky would never have said a word. However Obama’s problem is that he does not give the same deferential lip service to the anti-abortion groups in the Republican party that neither of the Bush’s or Reagan did. People forget that Ronald Reagan signed into law the most liberal abortion laws in the country prior to Roe v. Wade. George H.W. Bush was not only pro-choice but was a big backer of Planned Parenthood and despite some of his policies against abortion in the settings of military healthcare and in foreign aid programs did almost nothing other than to mouth empty platitudes in support of Pro-Life policies.

I find it fascinating to find the major Catholic figures in in conservative American politics, Paul Ryan and John Boehner are just as selective in their support of official Catholic teachings as are their Liberal counterparts that Bishop Jenky so roundly condemns.  It is what I call Conservative Cafeteria Catholicism. It was reported today that the American Council of Catholic Bishops wrote to express their concern about Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan. The believe that it contradicts church teaching regarding the responsibility of the Government to provide adequate services to the poor. Ryan claims that this budget based on his “Catholic Faith” but it stands in total opposition to Papal Encyclicals such as Renum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and the Second Vatican Council regarding the care for the poor. This was reiterated in 1991 on the 100th anniversary of Renum Novarum by Pope John Paul II. He called the church to advocate for the “preferential option for the poor.”  Today Speaker of the House John Boehner basically told the the Bishops to pound sand and that they, the Bishops “needed to see the big picture.” So I guess it really isn’t about defending the rights of the Church to such politicians just using selective parts of Church teaching to buttress their political support. But I don’t see Bishop Jenky calling either Boehner or Ryan “Judas.”

Bishop Jenky is a bad historian, but then that goes for the vast majority of clerics. He compares the Health Care Mandate in regard to contraception with the Kulturkampf  of Otto Von Bismarck.  In fact the the Kulturkampf was not just something that Bismarck and German philosophical and theological Liberals (Classic Liberalism) dreamed up simply because they opposed the theology of the Catholic Church.

What Jenky fails to mention is was the period of German Unification and Germany was opposed by Austria-Hungary which was a Catholic Empire hugely supported by the Vatican. The Catholic Church opposed the Protestant Kingdom of Prussia because it was weakening the power of Catholic Kingdoms throughout German speaking lands. It might be noted that at the same time the Vatican, which around the same time period was fighting the unification of Italy and the dissolution of the Vatican States.  It seems that throughout the 19th Century that the Popes, especially Pius IX and Pius X were constantly fighting the right of people to their own government and were willing to fund and support the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria which was the direct descendant of the Holy Roman Empire.

Bishop Jenky’s comparison of President Obama with Hitler and Stalin is an act of demagoguery that other Bishops as well as politicians should condemn. They were dictators that launched wars of aggression on other nations as well as murdered millions of their own people. What Jenky condemns President Obama for is not in the same league.  The same is true about the comparisons to Clemenceau and Bismarck is also wrong headed and a selective and distorted use of history to demonize a political opponent. To compare President Obama to Hitler and Stalin is the tactic of the religious despots of Europe that our Founders so rightly rejected.

Our founders were quite right to push back hard against the church denominations of their day that strove to enhance their power and privilege by attempting to become state churches or become the privileged denominations.  Bishop Jenky seems to forget that the United States was not founded to be the vassal state of the Roman Catholic or for that matter any other Church denomination.  If we actually value religious liberty or for that matter the Gospel itself we need to remember little things like that no matter what men like Bishop Jenky say.

John Leland, the Baptist leader who fought for the separation of Church and State that both Jefferson and Madison enunciated said:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Unchristian Christianity of Modern America

I cannot and will not recant

We live in an era where religion and politics especially in conservative circles have become one just as they were in the days following Constantine’s granting of religious freedom to all in the Empire while making the Catholic Church the State religion which went from a persecuted Church to an Imperial Church overnight. The Church in the coming centuries became an arm of the State something that until the enlightenment it remained in many nations. Most of the English Colonies that became the United States had State Religions even after the Bill of Rights the last to disestablish its state religion being the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1833.  Most European State Churches remained until the fall of the Empires after the First World War but many countries in Europe still have State Churches which are not very vibrant now days.

The curious thing is that until the 18th and 19th Centuries the powers of State Churches were great and heavily benefited greatly through their allegiance to the State.  To disobey the Church was to disobey the State and to disobey the State was often tantamount to disobeying God since the State and the rulers thereof were not simply ordained by God but in fact God’s instruments. Unfortunately this led to many abuses of power by those in the Church as well as the State and thankfully we in the United States were able to for the most part break with that tradition which was and is repugnant to the Gospel as well as human freedom.

In fact the United States has been the foremost proponent of religious freedom and tolerance of any nation in history. It was something that we enshrined, the right of all people to worship according to their faith. Now we haven’t been perfect practitioners of our ideal as there have been plenty of religious based prejudice and persecution in this country dating to colonial times, especially of religions outside the mainstream of Protestant Christianity, it took nearly 150 years for Catholics to become part of mainstream America and longer for others especially religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite those instances our experiment of religious liberty has been an amazing success in which many denominations have prospered.

All that being said I fear we are entering a stage where authoritarian religious groups closely allied with the rich and the powerful are on the ascendant in the United States just as radicals in other religions, particularly Islam but not limited to Islam are on the rise. Frankly I expect that people who are either living in a culture that still believes that the world is like it was back in the 13th Century and those that have become fantastically rich and enamored with the technology of the West to be that way. Let us face facts most of the counties in the Middle East lack the centuries of related social, political, philosophic or religious development that is part of Western culture and we still screw things up. The Islamic World has not experienced anything like the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment. There is a chance that it might amid the pro-democracy and freedom protests that are occurring throughout the Middle East even as radical Islamists dream of a new Caliphate, something that seems to be anathema to many of the young protestors in Egypt and other Arab Nations.

In the United States the movement to religious authoritarian systems closely allied with politicians and the State to do their bidding comes from conservative circles, particularly conservative and fundamental Evangelical Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church which since the reforms of Vatican Two has retreated into its old Ultramontanistic self.

That being said I figure I should go ahead and continue to dig my grave with my conservative brethren who view anyone to the left of them as a wild eyed raving liberal and quite possibly a Socialist.  I am a moderate and I might be classed as a liberal conservative or conservative liberal.  Thus I and people like me stand in the uncomfortable middle of a deeply polarized society where most to our left or right despise us for actually deviating from the established dogmas of the left or the right.

To the extreme right I might be a raving liberal, and the far left an intolerant conservative but the I choose to live in the tension between the two, although I think that in today’s Tea Party charged environment I would be called a liberal.  But I am a moderate and I will not give up the middle ground simply because others have adopted a scorched earth policy in faith and politics where “if you ain’t for us you’re against us” is the norm. In fact I think that Jesus stood against that kind of thought process, if you don’t believe me look at Mark 9:38-40 where Jesus says something different when the disciples confront him about others casting out demons in his name “he who is not against us is for us.”

As a passionate moderate who is also a Priest and Christian my goal in life is to get along, find common ground among disparate groups and care for God’s people.  I do this by acknowledging and maintaining the tensions that are inherent in a pluralistic society and not simply going along what whatever is popular or expedient. This takes a lot of effort and does not exclude being prophetic.  However that prophetic role comes in relationship with others where there is mutual respect, civility and care for each other even when we do not agree. It does not come from being angry or acting disrespectfully just because I can.  The prophetic role does not come from the outside looking in railing at your opponents.  That only increases your isolation, eventually to the point that you are no longer a player in the debate, simply an annoying pest with absolutely no say in anything.  It takes more courage to be open and dialogue with people respectfully than it does to rail against them.  Anyone can be a critic and anyone can be a wrecking ball.  That’s easy.  There is little personal risk in doing so, because you don’t have to open you self up to the possibility that there may be some merit in your opponent’s view and once you have a relationship with someone it is hard to demonize or dehumanize them.  Unfortunately that is what is happening across the religious and political divide in our society.

Despite the rancor on the extremes I think that there are more people out there like me than not. My belief is that voices like ours are drowned out by drumbeat of competing demagogues on the far right and the far left.  Since I am a priest my focus will be on the dangers that I see in the current climate and the captivity that churches have unwittingly placed themselves in making political alliances.  These alliances, particularly those of conservative Christians have become so incestuous and so intertwined that they are seen as one with supposed political conservatives. As such these churches and Christian leaders have become the religious voice of political movements fighting a cultural war in which only one side can win and in which there is no room for compromise or dialogue.

In doing so these religious leaders have compromised themselves so that only their followers give any credence to what they are saying.  They are so to speak “preaching to the choir” and not reaching out to or even caring about the welfare of their opponents, they are in a sense like the Taliban. They frequently demonize their opponents or for that matter anyone, even other Christians that might disagree with their understanding of the Christian faith.

That is why I say that many have become like the Taliban. If you do not agree with them on their social-religious agenda you are a heretic regardless of how orthodox you are in your actual theology.  Theology and belief is no longer the test, the test is if you agree with a social-political-religious agenda which often is at odds with the Christian faith proclaimed by Jesus.  This is like the Taliban because the goal is to gain control of the government and use the government to impose a social-religious theocracy where the church uses the “police power of the government” to achieve its goals.  Such a message is anathema to the Gospel and its redemptive message that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” What many churches and Christian leaders have done is to for practical purposes discard any real attempts to engage people with the message of the Gospel in favor of using political power to coerce non-believers into compliance through the police power of the government.  This in stark opposition to the early Church which was martyred for their faith in Christ versus their opposition to government policy or social ills, of which there were plenty that they could have protested.

Early in his “Reforming” days the young Martin Luther wrote a book entitled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” It was a severe critique of abuses in the Roman Catholic Church of his era.  I think churches today have become captive to various political parties, social and economic theories, movements and ideas.  These are not necessarily Christian even though any churches have “baptized” them so to speak.  Capitalism for instance is has many benefits, however unbridled capitalism which is not moderated with true concern for the least, the lost and the lonely, is nothing more that economic social Darwinism.  It is the survival of the fittest with little concern or regard for real people.  People in the world of baptized unbridled capitalism are not people, but consumers and economic units.  In the United States we can see this in practical terms where historically US corporations which at one time employed millions of Americans and produced actual good that were in turn exported to the world have outsourced so many jobs and industries to other nations.

This was done in order to increase corporate profits by paying foreign workers almost nothing and not having to abide by US environmental laws or tax codes.  This may bring cheaper goods in the marketplace but it has endangered our economic and even strategic military security. Economic power is one of the key elements of national security.  In the military we call this the DIME:  Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military and Economic power and unless your economy can keep up you will fail.  Just ask the Soviet Union.  It is interesting to see many Christian leaders and churches talk of capitalism as if came down from heaven even using the Bible to try to bolster their argument.  This is just one of many areas where the church is not longer a prophetic voice, but a willing captive mouthpiece for political and economic institutions which at their heart could care less about the Christian faith and wouldn’t mind it going away.

On the left many churches have embraced social reform, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation as well as left leaning and even socialistic economic models and a demonstrated preference for the Democratic Party.  While none of these goals of themselves are anti-Christian the linkage to the causes often over the Gospel has hurt progressive Christianity.

On the right conservative churches beginning in the 1970s in reaction to the social revolutions of the 1960s moved lock, stock and barrel to the Republican Party. They were led by men such as Jerry Falwell who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, Pat Robertson who founded the Christian Coalition and Dr D. James Kennedy who founded the now defunct “Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.”  Ronald Reagan was the political spokesman and was an outspoken advocate of the role of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Conservative religious leaders solidified that relationship in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose sexual proclivities did nothing to help his cause with Christians despite him signing the Defense of Marriage Act.  The 1994 “Republican Revolution” and “Contract for America” helped solidify Christian conservatives as a central component of the Republican Party and by that point there was a clear alliance between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party.  It was also during this time that politically conservative talk radio became a force in American politics and many on the Christian Right gravitated to broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and later Sean Hannity.  Conservative Christians now stand at the center of the Tea Party movement and are a force that no Republican politician can ignore if he or she wants to keep their job.

Despite what I have said I am not saying that people’s faith should not play an important part of their political viewpoint.  Churches and influential pastors have been an important part of American life and has contributed to many advances in our society including the civil rights movement, which could not have succeeded without the efforts of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and many other clergymen and women, from across the denominational and racial spectrum.

Other examples of where churches spoke to societal wrongs included slavery and child labor.  Now this was not a unified front as many churches especially regarding slavery and civil rights opposed these measures.  This included the major denominations that split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War.  The Southern Baptist Church is a product of this split.  Other churches such as the Methodists and Presbyterians eventually came back together, the Presbyterian Church USA doing so in 1982, 117 years after the Civil War…better late than never I guess.  This will not happen with the Southern and American Baptist Convention’s as they are now theologically poles apart.

There has been a trend over the last 20 years or so by many clergy and laity in both liberal and conservative churches to be uncritical in their relationships with political parties. In my view this has emasculated the witness of the church.  I have experienced this on both the left and the right. When I was a kid my dad, a career Navy Chief Petty Officer was serving in Vietnam. New to the area we went to a church of the denomination that my parents had grown up in and in which I had been baptized.  This was a mainline Protestant church, the name I will not mention because it is irrelevant to the discussion.  The minister constantly preached against the war and the military probably assuming that he had no military families in the congregation.  At that church I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” when I told her that my dad was serving in Vietnam.  If it had not been for the Roman Catholic chaplain at the little Navy base in town who showed my family the love of God when that happened, caring for our Protestant family without trying to make us Catholic I would have probably never reconciled with the church.

I trace my vocation as a priest and chaplain to that man. Since I have spent more of my life in conservative churches in the days since I have seen a growing and ever more strident move to the political right in conservative churches.  I think this has less to do with the actual churches but the influence of conservative talk radio which has catered to conservatives, especially social conservative Christians.  Conservative Christians are a key part of this demographic and it is not unusual to hear ministers as well as lay people simply parroting what these broadcasters are saying. I often hear my fellow Christians on the right talk more vociferously about free markets capitalism, the war on terror and justifying the other conservative causes which are general less than central to the faith in public forums like Facebook.  Some of what is written is scary.  People who pray for the government to fail, pray for the President to be killed, call anyone who disagrees with them pretty horrible names or prays the “imprecatory Psalms” against their opponents.  I saw an active duty Army Chaplain call the President “that reject.” The words of a lot of these folks are much more like Sean Hannity than the Apostle Paul.  When I have challenged conservative Christian friends on what I think are inconsistencies I have in some cases been attacked and pretty nastily if I might add.

I see this in stark contrast to the witness of the early church.  Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan sums up how Christians responded to real, not imagined persecution for their Christian faith, not social-political cause.

“They stated that the sum of their guilt or error amounted to this, that they used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god, and that they took an oath not to involve themselves in villainy, but rather to commit no theft, no fraud, no adultery; not to break faith, nor to deny money placed with them in trust. Once these things were done, it was their custom to part and return later to eat a meal together, innocently, although they stopped this after my edict, in which I, following your mandate, forbade all secret societies.”

Pliny was perplexed because although he thought their religion to be “fanatical superstitions” he could find no other fault in their lives; they even obeyed his order to stop meeting together.  My view is that Christians some on the left but especially on the right lost any prophetic voice not only in society, in their respective political party alliances.  They have become special interest groups who compete with other special interest groups, which politicians of both parties treat as their loyal servants.  This is what I mean by captivity.  I think that the church has to be able to speak her mind and be a witness of the redemption and reconciliation message of the Gospel and hold politicians, political parties and other power structures accountable for their treatment of the least, the lost and the lonely; caring for those that to those who seek to maintain political and economic control, merely numbers.  The church has to maintain her independence or lose submit to slavery.  There are many examples we can look to in this just a couple of relatively modern examples being William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We can find many others throughout Church history. These men were not apolitical, but they and their ministries were both prophetic and redemptive.  They maintained peaceful dialogue with their opponents and helped bring about justice.  Billy Graham never gave in to the temptation to endorse any political party.  Instead he had a voice and relationship with every US President during his active ministry, be they Republican or Democrat.

It is incumbent on Christians and other people of faith seek to embody this witness in our divided and dangerous world.  Christians especially cannot allow themselves to be ghettoized in any political party, or political faction where they are just another interest group even an important one. Nor can they allow their public witness to be absorbed and consumed by the promotion of political agendas or causes, even if those causes are worthy of support.  It is a matter of keeping priorities causes can never take precedence over the message of God’s love and reconciliation in Christ.  Unfortunately this is too often the case.

My view is that if you build relationships with people by loving them, caring for them and treating them with the same respect that you would want for yourself; even with those that you have major differences, then you will have a place at the table and your voice will be heard.  If we on the other hand cauterize ourselves from relationships and dialogue we will be relegated, and rightly so to the margins of the social and political process of our nation.  In effect we will ensure that people will stop listening to us not only on the social and political issues, but more importantly in our proclamation of the faith in the Kingdom of God which was proclaimed by Jesus which that comes to us from the Apostles.

Unfortunately I believe that Christians thinking that they are more influential than they are have marginalized themselves.  This is because many have compromised the faith by allowing extremists to be the public face of the Christian church in public debates on social, morale and political issues.  I hope someday we will rebuild our credibility as people who actually care about the life of our fellow citizens and our country and not just those who agree with us.  God have mercy on us all.

Peace, Steve+

 

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New Year’s Resolutions and the Problem of Forgiveness

 

“New Year’s Day… now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”  Mark Twain

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions well.  Usually mine are not worth the time to make them. However this year I am resolving the make a couple of resolutions that actually are resolvable it real time which I actually stand a chance at keeping.  Well….at least I hope that I can keep most of them, one will be tougher than the others.

The first of these resolutions is to make sure that I am within my weight and body fat standards for the Navy. This is doable and if I don’t do it I could get put out of the Navy and never see the rank of Commander that I worked so hard to be selected. The big test of this is the middle of April and I will make sure this happens and once I meet the standards in April the goal is to keep them and get in even better shape the rest of the year.  Thus I resolve to lose the weight and body fat while keeping it off and getting in great shape. P-90X here I come.

The second resolution is to do everything that I can as a supervisory chaplain to set my co-laborers up for success and to care for the spiritual and human needs our hospital staff as well the Marines, Sailors and their families that come to our hospital for their medical care. I am blessed to have a great staff and a supportive administration so this should be a pretty resolvable resolution.

My third resolution is to continue to rebuild my spiritual life both in daily spiritual disciples and in relationships with God and all the people that God puts in my path.  The past few years have taken a lot out of me and the past year has been a year in which faith returned after living life as for all practical matters an agnostic after I returned from Iraq.

At the same time I still have issues that I struggle with. One of those is on forgiveness. However when people make nasty attacks on me I struggle to forgive. I am rather earthy and certainly cannot be mistaken for a real saint as I have far too many rough edges to think too much of myself in regard to “how good of Christian I am.”  I have to leave that to judgment God and others.  I remember my first confession when I asked the Priest hearing the confession “if they deserved it is it still a sin?” I was told that my actions were still sins even if they deserved it although there might be some mitigation.  I think that my response was “damn.”

A rather nasty attack on me occurred on a website run by people that have left the CEC that had posted my essay about leaving the CEC on their site.  The comment has since been removed as the site administrator.  When I contacted this person he was shocked that was on the site and removed it and apologized to me a number of times and provided me the text of the offending comment.  The weird thing is was that I would have never read the comment if a CEC Bishop had not asked me to go to the site to defend him when the attack was on me.

The comments made about me were typical of much of my experience in the denomination. The person who was quite obviously a CEC clergyman twisted my words and accused me being an apostate. He accused me of “posturing” and denying need for the work of Christ to forgive the sins of humankind especially in regard to homosexuals and Moslems.

In fact these are some of his words: “Fr. Steve now believes that it was unnecessary for Jesus to atone for our sins as even Muslims can obtain Heaven without the Cross. And hasn’t God repeatedly taught us throughout Scripture that homosexual sex is condemned as an abomination. Yet Fr Steve now believes God didn’t really say that at all and that gay sex is okay with God.” My crime is to believe that the grace of God can extend to anyone and the Blood of Christ is sufficient to save anyone.

To put my beliefs and words about this I quote from one of the keynote documents of the Second Vatican Council.  It is a long quote but obviously my critic is clueless and readers unfamiliar with my writings could take what he wrote at face value and agree with him thus I quote from The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Lumen Gentium paragraph 16:

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126) But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, (130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

I may be a moderate to liberal on some social issues and be more inclined to err of the side of the grace of God when it comes to people that many conservative Christians demean and damn to hell but I don’t deny the Creeds and my beliefs are those espoused in the documents of Vatican II and the Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.  Personally I think that puts me in some pretty good company as far as my orthodoxy and Catholicity are concerned but there are some in the CEC that like to twist words and beliefs to demonize those that have left that church.  In fact when I was in the church I was attacked and even silenced for being “too Catholic.”  At the same time I was one of the most stalwart defenders of the CEC Church leadership despite how I had been treated by some Church leaders and not defended by others that should have defended me. I understand the pathological needs of those that make such spurious and cowardly attacks under the cloak of anonymity I have a terrible time forgiving them.  I don’t hide who I am or what I believe I expect that anyone that claims to be a Christian minister would have the decency to contact me personally rather than take the low road and do a drive by hit on me on another site. This process will be terribly hard and I will endeavor to forgive and get beyond it but I know my nature.  I am one of those old fashioned people that believe in honest and open dialogue and have a concept of personal honor.  This will require a lot of work and prayer and I will need your prayers to do this.

So there they are. As you can see some resolutions will take some work but I should be able to accomplish them. The last resolution regarding forgiveness will probably take a lot of struggle. Since I presume that the aforementioned coward and those like him will take other pot shots at me my wound will probably remain fresh as much as I want to leave it this part of my life behind.

I appreciate your prayers for me in the coming year. So many people have been so encouraging to me on this website in so many ways since I began the site in February of 2009.  I am so grateful for all of you and give thanks to God for all the love and care that so many readers have shown to me over the past two years.  I pray that you will know the love, peace and blessing of the Incarnate God in the coming year and covet your prayers that I will be able to do the same.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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