Monthly Archives: October 2015

The limits of secularism

The head of ACLU in my state wrote a column in the local paper outlining four issues where the encroachment of theology into the public square risked tearing down the wall of church and state. While his use of words like “shameful” and “zealots” betrays, well, that this is written from a non-detached perspective, it’s generally a well-written column. 

I particularly liked his last sentence: “If we are forced to live and die by someone else’s theology, that seems more like religious tyranny than religious freedom.”

I like it, of course, because it unwittingly undermines the rest of his column. Secularism is a theology, a set of statements about who God is, who we are, and how we should live as a consequence that shapes our public and private lives. Because it by definition holds that religious belief is at most a private matter that should be checked at the gate to the public square, adherents lose the fact that they are making theological claims as well. By claiming that secularism provides a least common denominator set of values, adherents are perhaps blind to the fact that they are simply replacing one oppressive dominant belief system with another.

People I work with sometimes ask me how I can be so open about my faith while working for an organization that is non-sectarian, open to those of all faiths including no faith at all. And the truth is, it was perhaps an unlikely source that got me here: multicultural inclusion training. 

I have learned through years of training that a least common denominator culture is really a myth – an excuse to hire and engage people who are demographically different but culturally the same. I can work with all sorts of people who demographically represent diversity, but if they (and I) are required to check their behavioral differences at the door and assume the persona of a dominant culture, I will miss out on the advantages that different perspectives bring to a discussion, and I will never connect with the communities they come from. 

The same is true of religious difference. If the only Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists allowed into a discussion are those who are willing to pretend to leave their religious beliefs out of the discussion, we will be left with a bland and inauthentic nothingness that doesn’t accomplish anything. If we want to get somewhere together, we have to be willing to embrace our differences rather than pave them over. 

In fact, one thing that struck me over and over again was that, when I’ve worked at truly encountering members of diverse communities, faith talk comes often to the surface. And as a result I realized that to be authentic in my work, I needed to bring my whole self to their whole self, including my faith to theirs. 

So where does that leave us on the contentious issues the author outlined? I believe our way forward is, to use Pope Francis’ terms, in building a culture of encounter and accompaniment. If, say, on abortion (the hottest of the four hot buttons the author suggests), we want to get out of this WWI stalemate we’ve spent the last four decades in, those who believe in a woman’s right to choose and those who believe in the sanctity of life need to make the effort to understand the other, not by assumption and projection but by true dialogue that surfaces the values and beliefs that lie behind each position. And then together they need to look for where there may be common ground,whether it be common values or common policy, or common conversion to a new way of thinking. It is very long – Christian denominations and other faiths have been at it for decades over issues that seem inconsequential to outsiders – and very slow. The temptation to give up is strong. It’s easy to pretend – to not really be willing to fully encounter the other. But staying in trenches and lobbing grenades across a battlefield isn’t getting us anywhere either. 

This sort of accompaniment is at the heart of true religious liberty. It requires us both to acknowledge the primacy of theological belief in many people’s outlook on the common good and to recognize that appealing to religious tenets alone is unpersuasive in the public square. It replaces the comfortable myth of a least common denominator value system with the uncomfortable challenge of seeking commonality that traverses real individual differences. In the pursuit, we may find our ability to understand and care for our fellow person increasing, which is a worthy benefit unto itself. 

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Synod 15 careens toward a close

I have no special insight to share about the synod on the family, which is in its final week. I see the same stuff you see: that there are tensions between two positions that seem irreconcilable – those who see the primacy of asserting the truth of what the law requires and the Church teaches as acceptable, and those who see the primacy of mercy toward those who fall short of the goal in a way different from ours. I don’t see this ending well, and I think most other observers would say that either we will have a power play by one of these two factions or else a very uncomfortable, demoralizing and divisive push off in which the tensions continues unresolved.

I take solace only in this, that God is in control, that the Spirit guides the Church, and that He has a plan. And above that, I recognize that He does his best work when there is no human possibility without him. 

And that may be where we are today.

So go pray.

Writing straight with our crooked lines: #Synod15, family, and the hot issues.

For the next three or so weeks, the focus of the Church is off of Pope Francis and on the bishops gathered for the ordinary synod on the family. If this sounds like deja vĂ¹, it’s because last year bishops gathered for an extraordinary synod on the same topic (ordinary synods happen every three years; extraordinary ones are ones that don’t fit that schedule and are fairly rare in the 50 years of synodal history). Plus there was a World Meeting of Families in Philly last week. This synod should end with a document, and possibly from that document Francis will write an apostolic exhortation like the one that sort of launched this blog.

Lots of expectations about what could happen in this process. A path forward for divorced couples to fully rejoin the church? Softening on same sex marriage? Married priests?

First, let me suggest one of the most likely, and most potentially fruitful outcomes: a new commitment to more comprehensive marriage preparation that extends across the lifespan from youth through traditional marriage prep to ongoing continuing marital education, if you will. The Church has an exceptional story to tell about the sacrament of marriage that most members, much less non-members, don’t know about; Saint John Paul II made it, and the Theology of the Body in which it sits, the cornerstone of his theology. To fully inculcate that appreciation of what marriage can optimally, gracefully be, would require a significant rethinking of what catechesis is and how it’s delivered, and if the outcome were for even 1/2 of Catholic marriages to fully embrace the prefiguring of divine love that marriage can be, it could transform the church and the world.

This would be the easy part.

The tough questions are really two-fold: What does the Church do for those whose marriages have broken apart seemingly irrevocably? What does the Church do with exemplary marriages that don’t fit the template? (I think there is an argument for married priests, but I just don’t see it coming up in a significant way in this synod.)

On the first question: Pope Francis seems pretty clear on this front: the Church should do everything it can to embrace and welcome the broken, because they are merely more visible reminders of the brokenness we all face in our own way. The catch is, how do we balance hope – the hope that through God’s grace no relationship is truly irretrievable, no marriage completely over – and mercy – and with it the recognition that sending someone back into an unrepentantly toxic relationship is dangerous and unloving. That’s a pastoral challenge I hope the synod chews on a lot. The Catholic understanding of marriage is lofty enough that a “cheap grace” that gives up too early defrauds the recipients from a great gift – the strength that comes with fighting through hardship. But so many people, mostly women, have been damaged unspeakably by an ethic that is unrelenting in its call to keep returning to a bad relationship that the Church has to be sensitive to the need to protect its more vulnerable members.

If the first question is pastoral, the second is theological and historical.  It was just the Sunday before last when Numbers and Mark both told of examples of God working through those who weren’t considered to be acceptable by the favored. In both cases, and in Acts’ history of the inclusion of Gentiles, God clearly sided with the unexpected against convention.

If there are remarried couples who are truly modeling the beautiful mutual self-giving of divine love prefigured in marriage, should we in the Church be turning them away from full communion? 

And what about this? I know same-sex couples who have been better examples of commitment, self-sacrifice and love for longer than I have been. While they, like many opposite-sex couples, have been unable to procreation biologically, they have created life in their service to the greater good and have nurtured life through adoption, fostering, and friendship. They do not fit the mold. They will never conform to the template of sacramental marriage the Church holds today. Just as the Gentiles who received the Holy Spirit did not conform to the template of Jesus’ first followers. Our call as the Church, as was that of the early disciples, is to look not for poll numbers or market share but for evidence of the working of God’s love, discern its authenticity, and honor it at the risk of sacrificing our own assumptions.

BREAKING: Pope Francis not a “cafeteria Catholic” either.

Remember when I said that whether you considered yourself a conservative Catholic or a liberal Catholic or a (any other adjective) Catholic, eventually the gospel would make you choose whether you were more loyal to the descriptor or the Catholic part? 

Suppose you are Pope Francis, and you believe in the entirety of the Catholic faith. You know that in America, some elements of social doctrine that appeal to conservatives are being highlighted to the point that they are preventing others from seeing the Church as a messenger of Good News. Other points of doctrine are being minimized or ignored. You believe that changing doctrine is not your mandate — but you know that there is a grave need to refocus on the central message of love, grace and mercy and also cast a light on other parts of doctrine that are critical for this time and, because the American Church has shifted politically to one side, are not getting the attention they need. What do you do?

Turns out, you do what Francis did. You show with your actions and emphasize with your words the core gospel message. You use policy speeches to shine a light on immigration, inequality and climate change. And you acknowledge the other elements of doctrine that have turned into weapons without giving their wielders more oxygen.

Francis defended a pro-life position, even as he accented the anti-death penalty elements of that position.

Francis defended religious freedom in general speeches, while meeting off the public schedule with the Sisters of the Poor who are suing the Obama Administration over the ACA’s contraception mandate, and apparently meeting secretly with Kim Davis. On the plane ride back, he spoke specifically about the need to respect the right of conscience even for public officials without discussing Davis’ case specifically.

So no, it turns out that Francis is not the liberal pope a divided America thought. He’s the pope, period, and he’s threading a needle to add weight to the port side of a listing American Catholic ship without throwing overboard anything on the starboard side.

His hope, I suspect, is that enough people turned off by the Church’s overemphasis on culture war issues will see his embrace of prisoners, homeless, immigrants, children and reopen their ears to the good news. His calculation is that the loud voice on those issues the left embrace would better establish in the political mindset that these are issues of Catholic doctrine, and his all but tacit acknowledgement of issues of the right would signal that he is not changing course while also not feeding the too hot flame.

If you are a liberal first, the Davis meeting probably makes it hard for you to gloat. If you are a conservative first, the fact the meeting was held in secret (and was not immediately acknowledged by the Vatican) probably makes it hard for you to grandstand. And if you are a Catholic first, you remember that neither gloating nor grandstanding attracts people to the God of love, and that a faith that doesn’t unsettle us is probably a faith with blind spots.