Monthly Archives: September 2015

No analysis. Just an invitation.

Pope Francis has left the country. Commentators will spend a lot of energy talking about what his visit to the US meant, what changes might happen, and what’s next. The pope returns to the Vatican to prepare for a synod of bishops on the family that is expected to be a significant event that will make its own headlines. Most normal people will go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

But before you do, let me make a couple of points that may be relevant to you. I saw many ex-Catholics and non-Catholics attracted to this pope’s spirit – his message of love, mercy, Grace, and concern for the vulnerable, through his heavily accented words but far more through his clear actions. I heard lots of versions of the same thing: “I’m not/no longer/never considered being Catholic, but I’m impressed by this guy.” And here’s what I would point out:

  1. He was made this way by his faith within this Church. Before his visit, Time did an excellent story on then-Father Bergoglio’s transformative moment, when his strong-willed divisiveness led to his exile from leadership, which built his new, humble, loving character. It was prayer that shaped him, but prayer grounded in a religious order and Church to whom he committed himself in obedience. When his vision and style led to conflict with others in his order, he didn’t write them off or plot their takedown. He obeyed them, and in that process of putting his own will beneath a larger Church he became the man you were attracted to.
  2. He is attractive not only because he embodies character traits you think all leaders should have, but also because those are traits you wish you had more of, too. As evangelical pastor Kyle Idelman spells out in his book not a fan., living a spiritually informed life isn’t something we are meant to watch; it’s a participatory sport we are meant to live. Whether it’s Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, or your neighbor down the street, when you see someone living in peace with themselves, their God, and their world, it’s a reminder that that should be you.
  3. You won’t get there on your own, and it’s the jerks that help you the most. In our consumer society, we are used to being choosy, and Gen Xers are particularly wired to think you are on your own. We can look at any faith, and any institution, and find doctrine we don’t agree with, history we wouldn’t embrace, and people we would rather not associate with. And that’s part of the point. By encountering other people who are as imperfect as we are but in maddeningly different ways, we learn that true love doesn’t always mean true like. By struggling to understand a doctrine that just doesn’t make sense to us, we learn a lot more about what our own hidden agenda might be, and we come to value a perspective that isn’t naturally our own. I would not blame anyone who left the Catholic faith during the scandals of recent years, but by sticking around I have shared the pain of family betrayal and hoped for rebirth, and that has made me a more compassionate person.

To my non-Catholic friends intrigued by the pope, I’d say come closer. You will find bishops, priests, and fellow travelers who are as inspiring as Francis in their own ways (and yes, you will also still find some jerks). If you are more at home with another faith tradition you’ve drifted from, give it another look with fresh eyes. But pick a team and get in the game. That guy in white you saw in the Fiat? He’s not so different from you, other than his life of commitment to his faith and his church.

And to my Catholic friends, I’d say remember. Remember that the core of our faith, that which attracted these people to Francis, is what we should lead with: love, mercy, peace, humility, joy. Save the rules, apologetics, and traditions and devotions for later in the relationship.


The serious theological discussion about politics and economics that we won’t have on this papal visit.

No “Home Alone Francis” on this one.

Real quick: Maybe I can expound later, but there are two key theological points that undergird the angst around Pope Francis and his social teachings. Look for them deep in the arguments you hear pro and con about whatever he says in the US this week:

  1. Theological anthropology and the power of sin: In short, historically, Protestants have been stronger about the degree of brokenness that sin leaves in humanity. In a fundamentally evil and sinful world, free market economics are valuable as they leverage and limit our innate greediness to bring a greater good for all by aligning individual goals (profit) with common benefit through competition. Similarly, a primarily sinful world needs more limits, whether through penal or military power constrained by balanced opposition and constitutional limits. Historically, Catholics (since Aquinas) see the original goodness of creation redeemed by Christ in our world today, and with it a need not to be content with a sinful balance of power. At the end of the day, the grace of God allows us to aspire to better than an existence rooted and greed, and the hierarchy of divine majesty inspires us to order our society towards a better end. So you get more internationalism and more critique of capitalism. 
  2. Church as hospital for sinners or museum for saints. This division isn’t across denominational lines, I don’t think. Since, I don’t know, the Manicheans and Gnostics in the Church’s first few centuries to today, there is a strain of belief that says that a select few are “it”, and the role of the Church is to separate them and protect them from being spoiled by the world, which is irredeemably broken. Against this, and aligning with the older Christian tradition that has been muted in times when Christians have power, is the strain of belief that says that we are all fully broken, and all redeemed by grace gradually and partially, as we help each other. The only difference between the Church and the world is the recognition of grace. While the first strain seeks to build an impenetrable wall between us and them, the second strain sees no difference but a joy of realization and a desire to invite others into the celebration.

Anyway, gotta run. But watch, you will be able to roll these two dynamics out at your pope-watching party and look super smart.

Pope Francis Blowback, Part 2: the George Will edition

This was a tough week. An idol of sorts got knocked off his pedestal, and really just about defenestrated.

When I was in seminary, I had to defend my honors thesis to a committee, which is nothing unusual. What was, in retrospect, funny, was that the highest compliment I got from the committee (other than that they passed me) was a statement from probably the most liberal member of the panel about my style: he said that I speak with a reasonableness, stability, a can’t-we-all-agree-that-this-is-common-sense-ness that he could only compare to conservative columnist George Will. It’s not that I set out to be like George Will, but I admired his style and his content a great deal, and I really appreciated the comparison.

Until this weekend, when the local paper printed the total hatchet job by Mr. Will on Pope Francis. 

It’s not at all disconcerting that Will disagreed with Francis. It’s that the George Will I remembered, the George Will I emulated, never resorted to cheap ad hominem attacks, because he could rationally lead you to his point of view. Not this time.

I will admit that I don’t read him as often now, so I can’t tell whether he has migrated toward this cheap and easy belittling of opponents along with the rest of the political pundit culture. But whether this was an off day or a slow decline, it hurts no less than watching Willie Mays in 1973 with the Mets. The Kid has lost more than a step when he resorts to name-calling. Sanctimonious? Shrill? Wooly? Vacuous? Will labels the pope with all four in the first two paragraphs alone. He tries to frame Francis for not footnoting the science behind his arguments (while coming from a position that belittles the consensus of the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists). He then takes potshots at the Catholic Church and equates the pope’s positions as a dying brand trying to adopt the latest fad to maintain relevance. I absolutely honor Will’s right to dissent, but it still seems like a cheap shot. More, it seems much less than I would expect.

The George Will I looked up to not only wrote voluminously on baseball but made cogent points about the positions he advocated. He would have invited Pope Francis to consider the power of free-market capitalism to lift billions out of absolute poverty (a pitch he waves at and fouls off.) He would have shown not only that we have fought back successfully against environmental degradation but that a free market is essential to spur the sort of innovation it will take to do so this time (again, he gives just a feeble swing, which in the process acknowledges human agency in climate change). He would have invited Francis to embrace the greater lights of the Catholic tradition by encouraging systems that capitalize on the divine spirit that lies within our agency. Instead he dismisses him as a neo-Peronist. Strike three.

Say it ain’t so, George.

A Catholic Congressman is Boycotting Pope Francis. Let me count the reasons this saddens me.

As Pope Francis prepares to make history by becoming the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, one Congressman has made news by declaring he will boycott the pope’s visit, because the Congressman believes the pope is going to focus on climate change (which is probably a fair bet) instead of other Catholic social teachings.  The Congressman goes on to outline all the Catholic doctrines he believes the pope is ignoring – like defense of religious liberty, advocacy for Christian refugees, defense of life – and states he cannot as a good Catholic and American leader allow the pope pass on this misguided agenda. I linked to his words, so you can read them for yourselves.

American liberals are loving this. After years of being labeled “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing what elements of church doctrine they chose to embrace, they are reveling in the Schadenfreude of turned tables. They are hoping for a counter-push in which the new pope demands conservative Catholics embrace the more liberal elements of Church teaching or be turned away at the Communion line. (Digression: has The Onion done the story on the Midwest archbishop who warns Francis not to come to communion in his diocese for risk of being spurned?)

Not me. Here are five reasons why the Congressman’s decision brings me nothing but sadness:

  1. He ignores the pope’s records on the issues he cites. If there has been a more vocal defender of persecuted Christians (and other religious minorities), or care for refugees, I can’t think of who it would be. He has been consistent in defending the Catholic defense of life from conception to natural death, and I would be shocked if, during his discussion of the”throwaway culture” of the developed world he didn’t clearly reference the unborn and unwanted in multiple settings. To object on grounds that he hasn’t done enough on those issues requires a willful ignorance or a concerning lack of information.
  2. He ignores the continuity of Francis’ statements with Church teaching. If he read even just my blog, he would know that Francis’ encyclical actually plows very little new ground.
  3. He missed the real issue. I mean, I know climate change is the hot button, but Francis will say much more about inequality and the defense of the poor. Which, again, draws on doctrine central to Catholic teaching since at least 1891. If you’re going to boycott a pope, it seems like you ought to do it based on his primary disagreement with your policy, not a down-ballot issue. (More on this in the next post.)
  4. He made the most common choice that leads us astray. Look, for all the “Jesus, meek and mild” images, there is a disconcerting theme that runs through the Gospel about how Jesus and His message ultimately divides us from each other by forcing us to choose if we are with Him or with something else. Whether you are a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian or a (insert descriptor here) Christian, the sword of the Gospel will eventually cut through the word you put before “Christian” and make you choose. “Which is it?” And most of us, at least those of us who live in societies where Christianity is socially acceptable, will probably choose the adjective over the noun at the end of the day. This should be to our shame, but we usually wrap it around us as a prophet’s mantle of defending the true faith, because the alternative is to be exposed as selfish, idolatrous, wrong. It’s not an epic fail but a depressingly mundane one. Gloat only if you are blind to the ways it could happen to you. Feel the sadness Jesus feels when the rich young ruler fails to answer the bell.
  5. Boycotting shows how dysfunctional our political culture is. We knew this, of course. But when a member of Congress proudly proclaims that the way he treats people he disagrees with is to boycott them, to intentionally and publicly refuse to engage them in an encounter (to use a common Francis term), it acknowledges painfully and publicly how horribly off-course our non-discourse is. Disagree all you want (more on that in the next post), but really? Turn your back on people you disagree with, even if they lead the Church you attend? How effective can a legislative body, or a nation, be that embraces that as a tactic for dialogue?

Here’s what I hope Pope Francis does. I hope he gives the speech he planned to, and then, as quietly as a pope in DC in the social media world can do, I hope he seeks out this Congressman, embraces him, and tells him that, even if he is not ready to embrace the entirety of truth, he can join the rest of us imperfect sinners, Francis included, in a journey together.

Be careful what you study

I saw that the local university was inviting speakers for their first TEDx events. I’ve wanted to give a TED talk for a while, what on, I have no idea. It won’t be this one, for schedule reasons, but the topic – inspiring people around education – made me wonder what I’d speak on. And at this point, I’d say my topic would be “Be careful what you study.”

I am a HUGE supporter of liberal arts education. I majored in just about everything at some point in my college years before settling on a religion major and a politics minor, because I wanted to spend my precious time in college studying the most important stuff. Then came grad school, mostly because there was more I wanted to learn, until my first year of the doctoral program in Christian Political Thought convinced me that I was working too hard for too little hope of future employment, and, more importantly for an idealist like I was then, too little fulfillment from the spiritual depth of the subject.

I have gotten a life. I’ve been out of school since 1995 and never worked in the “field.” Until last week, I hadn’t been a leader in a traditional ministry – like a Bible study or prayer group – in at least a dozen years. (It did feel good to be back, if only briefly.) Whether working in sports marketing, grassroots advocacy, or whatever you want to call what I’m doing now, I’ve done meaningful, interesting, paying work for 20 years.

And yet this pope has me back writing about moral theology and Christian political thought at night on a blog with dozens of readers.

And yet I realize how often I draw on theologians and philosophers in my decision-making at work. I hated studying Jurgen Habermas, the philosopher who emphasized the importance of language in defining our reality. Philosophy is dry, but philosophy in translation is ten times worse. But the number of times I justify a course of action at work on the fact it gives us a language to talk about how we should be together is, well, Habermasian I guess.

So be careful. That elective you take, or that second major? It could turn you into a sleeper-cell theologian, dormant for a couple decades, but never gone.

Punk’d by Christendom

Two posts tonight. This one a follow up on Friday’s post about Syrian refugees.

I noticed in the local paper that a letter to the editor called Pope Francis to task for being “naive”, first for his guidance to European parishes to accept refugees (in light of the trend among Muslim immigrants to European countries to, you know, remain Muslim), which he said would undermine Christian values. Second, the writer said Francis was naive to champion socialism over capitalism. 

It’s statements like these that make me wish, just a little bit, that Constantine hadn’t converted to Christianity in the 4th Century, because wrapping the trappings of power around the Gospel has well-nigh strangled it at many points.

First, worth noting, while Francis (like many of his predecessors) has been unstinting in his critique of capitalism, for its consumerism, its lack of appreciation for the common good and the environment, and its anti-life bias for profits over people, I don’t know of an instance in which he has claimed socialism is a better system. That’s an assumption made by dualists – those who can only hold two supposed opposites as options. In the history of Catholic social thought, there are long traditions of critique for the excesses of both. More than that, there is the fundamental critique that both systems are guilty of – they see humans as primarily economic actors.whether you subscribe to the socialist notion that we are first and foremost workers and producers, or the capitalist idea that we are primarily consumers and owners, both systems sell humanity short by minimizing the primacy of our spiritual, social and communal nature. And as we create systems from either philosophy that reduce who we are to the economics of our existence, we ignore and neglect that which makes us fully human and can make us fully children of God. True love has no price tag, nor can it be managed by the State.

Is Francis naive about the refugee crisis? Should he be focused on protecting “Christian values” in Europe over welcoming those in dire need? I’m not sure how you can read the Gospels, but even more Paul’s letters, and even more than that John’s letters, without realizing that hospitality is the first Christian virtue. (To which I would add, if you read the Hebrew Bible, it’s pretty clear that we Christians inherited that from our Jewish forefathers.)

At the point at which you start arguing that “defending Christian values” required denying a key part of its Christianity’s core message, well, you might want to re-read the whole “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me” part of the Gospels again. Because what you’re defending may be valuable, and it may be connected with Christendom, but it flies in the face of what Jesus taught his followers.

What to do about Syria, ISIS, Boko Haram…

When I got up yesterday morning, September 10th, I rewatched a video a friend had shared on Facebook that brought home for us Americans what the experience of a child in a place like Syria might be like.

Then I looked at the readings for the day, which included this:

Brothers and sisters:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one Body.

And be thankful.

And this:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.

And this:

love your enemies and do good to them

And this:

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.

This, on the eve of 9/11.

We as a world seem to be stuck on whether to welcome refugees from places that are, literally, terrible places to live. Pope Francis has been consistent in urging the developed world to welcome refugees from Syria, Libya, and every other country whose situation is so unstable that residents feel their only hope is to flee. His exhortation this week for every Catholic parish in Europe to shelter at least one refugee made waves, mostly because Catholic Hungary and several other EU nations have been less than welcoming of would-be immigrants. But recall that his very first pastoral visit as pope was to the tiny island of Lampedusa, where he brought attention to the refugees and migrants who lost their lives there in a shipwreck trying to flee North African instability. While it took the image of a 3-year old Syrian to wake up America, Vatican Radio has been covering the refugee crisis from many angles since the beginning of Francis’ papacy. And while Americans may think the US immigration issue is completely different, I would not be in the least surprised if he argued otherwise in his upcoming visit to Congress.

So to those who would say it matters that the turmoil that drives some percentage of the migrants in Europe and most in the Americas isn’t physical violence but economic want, so what? (I suspect the pope will say something about economic inequality to Congress as well.) If what drives you into the hands of con-men and slave-traders and away from your family and community is poverty and starvation rather than bombs and thugs, what difference does it make? 

To those who balk because some, maybe most, of the immigrants are Muslims, so what? Recognize that the region racked by instability is predominantly Muslim, and the so-called Islamic State is not only not truly a state, but is every bit as barbaric toward the faithful followers of Islam who don’t hew to the perverse interpretations of the Koran that its leaders use to defend their barbarity. Of course they want out, too.

And to those who would claim that this is all a front, that the majority of those making the harrowing journey across back roads and wilderness into an undertaking future are actually jihadists seeking to infiltrate Europe and bring it down? Really?

What stumps me is not the refugee situation and our immediate response. What stumps me is how to stop it. Clearly, these regions need to be stabilized in a way that respects human rights and human development in ways that allow decent people to live and prosper in peace. How does that happen?

The Bible is of little help on this. Neither the Gospels nor Paul nor any other New Testament writer envisioned a scenario in which followers of Jesus would have political power.

History is of little help on this. While the world has defeated extremist ideologies in Europe through allied force, the military experience in the Middle East is different, and some of the sectional factions at odds have been fighting for millennia.

And what Jesus says in the Gospel of the day is the hardest message of all: You know those terrorists? The ones who profess death to America? He calls us to love them. 

What that looks like, and how we can love them while stopping the, from hurting others we love, I do not know. The only phrase that gives me a tangible place as an individual to go is this: pray for those who mistreat you. 

That we can do.