Will the Catholic Church Break in Two?

Remember the Great Schism from your world history class?   No?  Well there were actually two Schisms (pronounced /SIZ em/ by the way) that go by this name. The first one was when the Eastern Orthodox Churches split with the Catholics back in the 11thcentury, but the one I mean was in the 14thcentury.  Here’s what happened:

The cardinals elected a new pope in 1378 but they later regretted it—he had a bad temper and was a bit of a crank.   Most of the cardinals snuck off to a neighboring town and elected a new Pope, but–!  the old one wouldn’t go quietly, so there were now two popes.  All the countries of Europe chose sides, there was anger and fighting and a very unhealthy situation for Catholic Europe for 21 years, so finally some of the Church leaders held a council and elected a reconciliation candidate to take over as pontiff.  The church bells were ringing to celebrate, but that quickly changed to wringing of hands when the other two popes refused to recognize the new guy. Now there were 3 popes! –all calling each other “the antipope”.  Fortunately, 5 years later two of the three decided to resign for the good of the Church, and a brand-new pope was elected. The third antipope who would not resign was excommunicated and the Great Schism was over.

Sound familiar?  Today there is a similar rebellion underway. Over in Italy Archbishop Vigano and a faction of prelates who are fed up with Pope Francis have called on him to resign.  Francis says he won’t dignify it with an answer.  The battle lines are being drawn, and the first pot shots are being fired.

And what is the reason they say Francis should resign? It’s all driven by the priest sex scandals that continue to grow faster than you can say mea maxima culpa.  Vigano et al. claim that Francis knew about allegations of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse but despite that made him “his trusted counselor”. Vigano believes that there is a subculture of homosexuality among priests and within the hierarchy of the Church and that Francis is allowing it to flourish.

So there it is. Vigano and the traditionalists see Church teachings as immutable. Homosexuality is evil.  Priests must be celibate.  Why? Because that’s the way it’s been for a long, long time.  The Bible’s words are clear on homosexuality. Not so clear on celibacy, but still it’s canon law.   Others believe it’s time for the Church to change. The Church is hurting. The number of people wanting to become priests is dropping precipitously, churches are losing members and attendance has fallen off in most countries.  Maybe, this group of reformers says, maybe we should let priests marry, or let women become priests.  Celibacy ain’t easy if you’re not St. Paul.

My question is: if you think priests should marry and/or that women should be priests, why not just make it easy on yourself and admit you are on the road to becoming an Episcopalian (Anglican if you’re outside the USA).   They fought that anti-celibacy battle back in the 16thcentury, and women were allowed into the priesthood in the 20th.

Or let’s go even further: If you had to back either Vigano or Francis, who would it be? And why? If you’re on Vigano’s side are you saying that literally every single word of the Bible is God’s word?  Every single decision made by a Pope in the past or by a Church council was correct?  If you’re on Francis’s side and think the Church should lighten up, what’s your authority?  Is it because you trust the Pope because he IS the Pope? or do you sense some feeling in your being that is directing you toward a different understanding of the way the world works than what was handed to you in a catechism in your impressionable years.  If that is the case, you are a humanist, and you are in a position to weigh decisions in an entirely different way than the Catholic Church, or either of the two future Catholic Churches, would dictate.

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Priests and Sex or How Do You Solve a Problem Like Religion?

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has put out a video in conjunction with the report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests.  In that video three survivors talk about how the horror of their experience as children has affected their lives.   One man said it left him with no desire to have children, and he never has. Another elderly gentleman says that he was never able to show affection to his wife and kids.

But the most important comment in the video is, “we were taught that the priests and nuns are God.”    A young woman in tears explains that no one would believe her: “it’s your word against God’s.”

This brings us back yet again to Socrates’ question in Euthyphro:  is something right because God says it is, or is it right because it’s right? In other words, could God, through a priest or through scripture, say something is right that we feel deep inside us is wrong?  And if we agree that it is possible for a priest or scripture to be mistaken, can we figure out what’s right without reference to God?

The problem with the Catholic Church or any organized religion should be clear:  men and women are not God.  Nor are they the voice of God, at least not of a God who is all-knowing and the sole authority on right and wrong.  All human beings are capable of wrong-thinking and wrong-doing.  Further, since human beings wrote all of our holy books, there is lots of room for error in scripture as well.

So where does that leave us in our quest for living an ethical life?  It leaves us thinking, not following blindly.   It leaves us first with the admission that what we think we know now might be wrong.  It leaves us prepared to weigh what someone else, even priests, even our parents tell us is the right way to think.

If we are willing to agree about these basic ground rules for moving forward, it leaves us open to answering important questions without referring solely to past traditions and age-old scriptures, questions like:

–Is it healthy for priests and nuns to take a vow of celibacy?

–Is anything wrong with homosexuality between consenting adults?

–Should contraception be outlawed?

–Is abortion wrong?  When does a growing Homo sapiens become a human being with a guarantee to the right to life?

How will we answer these questions without a Pope or Bible?  Through Reason, relying on human experience and by weighing the effects of our actions on other human beings in the age we live in, as opposed to the experiences of tribes of people who lived thousands of years ago.

Catholic Church Nixes Death Penalty (Except in Nebraska)

The Pope is at it again! Contrary to what Catholics have been taught for centuries, this week Francis announced that the death penalty is wrong.  That means “executions are unacceptable” in all cases.  Previously Catholic teaching allowed capital punishment if it was the “only practicable way” to defend lives.  So what is different in 2018?  Catechisms are sometimes a helpful method of instruction so let’s try it here.

Why are executions wrong now?

Because the Pope told us it’s wrong and the Pope can’t be wrong. 

Why can’t he be wrong?

Papal Infallibility.  Because the Holy Spirit will move the Pope to the right side of any question.

How do we know that the Holy Spirit is involved?

Because Jesus gave Peter a special place and power in the Church that He established, making Peter the first bishop or Pope. Every Pope since then has that same power, given by Jesus.

How do we know Jesus did that?

It’s in the Bible and the Bible is the Word of God.

How do we know that?

It says so in the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16)

Oh.

What’s wrong?

Well, why should I believe what’s in the Bible?

Because it’s the Word of God!

How do I know that?

Because it’s in the Bible!! Aren’t you listening?

Hmmm.

You don’t sound convinced. 

Are you?

Of course.  It’s what I was taught. It’s what I believe.

But does that mean that every Catholic has to buy into the Pope’s position on the death penalty?

Yes.

So when the governor of Nebraska, who is a Catholic, insists that an upcoming execution will take place, never mind what the Pope said, he’s –what? Not a Catholic anymore? A sinner? A heretic?

Give him a break! What’s he supposed to do?  He’s the governor, and he’s following the law of the land.

He could commute the sentence to life in prison.

Can he do that in Nebraska?

The governor of Ohio did it, why not Nebraska?  I mean, if he’s a Catholic and the Pope says–

Look, stop asking me questions!  Just….Believe what you want to believe!

So I don’t have to believe what the Pope believes if I’m a Catholic?

Go away!!

 

Oh dear, we seem to have gone off the rails somewhat.  But our inquisitive student raises a key question: how do we know anything, especially what is right and wrong?  Read my book!!

 

Holy Communion: What Do Catholics Believe?

When ex-Catholics answered a Pew poll two years ago about why they stopped going to church, 41% cited “religious institutions, practices, or people,” for example, they just didn’t like their church, or found it hypocritical. That kind of thing could happen at any church, of course.  But the more interesting figure is the 12% who said that they no longer believed in God, and an additional 6% who said simply “they grew up” or “started thinking for themselves.” This leads us to the Eucharist or as it is also called, Holy Communion and the central Catholic teaching in transubstantiation (that the bread and/or wine actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus) and the Real Presence (that Jesus is actually present in the bread after the priest’s sacramental words have been spoken).

Let’s face it:  for anyone who was not raised in this belief, it’s a tall order.   So do Catholics really believe this or what? It turns out that not all do.  Another Pew Forum study from 2010 found that 37% of Catholics rejected the doctrine that Christ is actually present in the communion wafer that they ingest every mass. A more recent study showed that fully half of American Catholics did not even know that was one of the Church’s teachings.   One Catholic blogger, quite rightly, finds this astonishing because Catholic children in the second grade everywhere in America are supposedly taught this important information before their first communion. Why then is this piece missing from the Catholic consciousness?

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is that the average second grader would be repelled by the idea of actually eating someone’s flesh and drinking their blood, even though it looks like a wafer made from wheat,  especially if that someone were Jesus, who loved little children and healed so many of the sick.   You’ve got to admit that as metaphysical notions go, it’s pretty strange, even repulsive.   I would think it’s very likely that the priests are not hammering home the eating Jesus part in their prep classes, and by soft-pedalling the “This is my body,” they are drifting into the Protestant realms of the ritual as symbol.

The Eucharist is the cornerstone sacrament of the Catholic Church but these numbers show some movement away from this–….well,  the word “medievalism” comes to mind. The Cathars in southern France were on the right track with this back in the 13th century when they tossed this sacrament overboard, but Pope Innocent III and his “crusaders” (with St. Dominic staunchly supporting them) had them wiped out, man, woman, and child.   And so the teachings continue, that Jesus, every molecule of Him, is in each wafer, each drop of communal wine.  But you can’t help thinking that if Innocent and been less Catholic and more humane, the Church would be teaching something much different today.

 

The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

A Nation of Ghouls

Folks, we are in a dark place. Exactly how dark came home to me the other night as I sat down to find something to watch  on Netflix. Among the thousands of shows they have on offer is a category called “Netflix Originals” which has been getting a lot of attention for its creativity and success. I’d already watched some episodes of several of them, and as I scrolled through now, I realized that most of them were either murder mysteries or sci-fi heroes fighting evildoers.  The crimes we are watching are no ordinary felonies, they are horrific rapes, tortures, dismemberments, cannibalism….you name it, some writer has come up with a script for our amusement. We are offered deranged cult leaders, serial killers, pedophiles, drooling sadists or megalomaniacs wielding apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, and the murders are the most gruesome, disgusting, horrifying deaths any demented scriptwriter could ever conceive, with the camera often lingering over mangled corpses, caressing them like a lover for our viewing pleasure.

We have become a nation of ghouls.

Never mind worrying about our kids–this is what we’re feeding ourselves a steady diet of night after night. No wonder people are jumpy, paranoid and mistrustful!

It’s not that some of these shows aren’t well written, it’s not that they don’t raise interesting moral questions or illustrate important aspects of our humanity–they often do.  But, I’m telling you, friends, get away from it! Living with these stories day-in, day-out is making us kind of crazy.   It’s a subtle way for the Dark Side to slip into our very beings and turn us all against each other.

There is one show that consistently takes us along the higher road: Call the Midwife.   In this British import we find a paean to the Sacrament of Birth and its extension, childrearing.   In 1950s London the midwives are the heroines, along with the nuns who in their generous, open-hearted spirits remind us why becoming a bride of Christ has been so appealing for so many through the years. It’s all about compassion, something we all have to offer no matter what our place is in the world.   Perhaps the show is a bit saccharine at times, but a taste of sugar feeds the Spirit a lot better than a mouthful of gore.

So get out of that pool of blood you’ve been wallowing in and get back to normal!  You don’t have to become a Catholic nun,  just look around for the sacred in life.   Go play with your children or your grandchildren.  Celebrate life every day.

Pope Francis on Islam: Is He Delusional?

Pope Francis recently said that he can’t condemn the brutal murder of the Norman priest, Father Jacques, as Islamic terrorism because “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

This unleashed a furor.   On the Daily Express website for example, swarms of furious readers wrote in that the Pope was “blind”, “deluded”, “a nutter”, “an old fool”, “brain-damaged”, “an imposter”, “the antichrist”, “pure evil” “ a “Satinist”… Strong stuff!

So let’s unpack this.

Is it right to “identify” Islam with violence?

Bad choice of words.  What do we mean by “identify with”—that’s a confusing verb for this discussion. Let’s rephrase it:

Do some people who claim to be Muslims resort to violence to enforce their religious views?

Yes, undeniably.

Are they justifying their actions by pointing to what their religion teaches them?

Yes, absolutely.   In the holy books of Islam there are passages that unequivocally support violent acts to further their goals, including killing infidels to spread Islam. See link.

Does that mean that Islam is a religion that encourages violent and terroristic acts? Yes and no.

Yes, if you are someone who believes and teaches others that you must follow every word of the Quran. That is what we mean by fundamentalism: follow the holy text. There are from 1 to 5 % of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries who support the fundamentalism of ISIS.

No, if you believe that you can ignore certain parts of the Quran as outdated. See link.

This brings us to the most important part of the Pope’s recent statements: “Nearly all religions” have a “small group of fundamentalists” so don’t tar Islam with that brush.

Holy Cow! What the Pope is saying here is we have to beware of fundamentalism in any religion, including Roman Catholicism. Wow! What that would mean is exactly what Seven Sacraments for Everyone is getting at: we have to get beyond the slavish adherence to texts written thousands of years ago and to traditional practices that developed over centuries.   What we should be doing is “editing” those texts, looking into our hearts, looking at human experience to search for those transcendent moments that lead us to the Divine, that point us on our way to the Greater Good.   Killing innocent people in cold blood is the antithesis of this path.

Once again, two cheers for Francis!!   But he could have been clearer in his condemnation of terrorism under the guise of religion.

 

Birth Control: Is Pope Francis Leading Us to the Gates of Hell?

News surfaced yesterday that there is a cohort of Catholic Church leaders who are not at all happy about where Pope Francis is taking the Church.   In a video they created called “Plea to the Pope” they are extremely upset by his hints that the times they are a-changin’. They object specifically to the ideas that

-contraception is OK to combat zika

– divorced Catholics who have remarried should be permitted back into the Church

– Church leaders should be more accepting of gays

The video-makers feel like Francis is creating ambiguity if not chaos within the Church by changing decades of traditional teachings. Their language is apocalyptic:

“I love the Holy Father. I pray for him every day, …but we need to work for Christ and his truth. And I need to defend my own family, and [statements he has made are] a threat to the faith of my children.”

Wow.  “Defend”?…”Threat”?  One woman calls the present situation “a horror.”

Others mention that the Catholic Church will cease to exist if it accepts contraception. One participant warns that “the contraceptive mentality destroys families, it destroys countries, and it will destroy our Christian civilization.”

The supplicants begin by assuring us that they love the Holy Father but he’s leading the Church to the gates of hell.   Most interesting of all is that they all pray for him every day, and urge their listeners to do the same. This is surely a backhanded way of saying that they’re pretty certain they know something the Pope doesn’t know (i.e., what God really wants) and if they pray hard enough God will get him to snap out of whatever blind, bum trip he’s on.

But here is the paradox for Catholics: is the Pope infallible or isn’t he? Just to refresh the memory: infallibility means that whatever the Pope says on matters of great moral import can be considered God’s truth. There is a limit: he cannot contradict what is clearly stated in the Bible, but through study, he can guide the Catholic Church on “solemn, official teachings on faith and morals.” So if the Pope decides there is nothing against condoms in the Bible, then these folks have got to either accept it, or start their own church. That’s what the Protestants did, and for the same reasons.  He was the Antichrist then, remember, and though no one has applied that term to Francis, it’s really what they’re hinting at when they say he needs to work for “Christ’s truth.”

The filmmakers are to be admired for their desire for the Good, but surely their reliance on tradition and Bible verses from 2000 plus years ago is misplaced. Isn’t it clear on a pragmatic level, that using no contraception will inevitably result in disaster as overpopulation destroys us? That, and not the Pope, is what is going to lead us to the gates of hell, when starving people driven to desperation try to move en masse to other countries, or start wars to acquire the dwindling food stores and water supplies that remain on this over-burdened, suffering planet.

98% of American Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraception despite what the Church has taught for decades. Thank God for that.

See also A Lost Parable: The Sin of Contraception.

Pope Francis on Marriage: Get it Together, People!

Pope Francis is in hot water with conservative Catholics.   He recently responded to a question on marriage by saying that most (later changed to “many”) marriages were invalid because the couple didn’t understand the sacrament of marriage. They did not, he said, fully comprehend what they had agreed to as they exchanged those vows. His antagonists began piling on, saying that he was making the entire Catholic community wonder if their marriages were legit, and “muddying the waters” of the Roman Church even more than he already has with his liberal attitudes towards gays, divorcees, and others living beyond the pale (their pale, that is). You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as they proceeded to excoriate the Pontiff, as if he were an ordinary Joe off the street instead of the Vicar of Christ.

But Francis is on to something important.   Marriage doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s been plutoed. The Pope’s point is that those contemplating marriage are not being prepared properly for its demands, and that’s why there are so many seeking annulments (the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce).   They are too willing to call it a day and go on to the next partner on their dance card.

There are two things going on here. The first is the need to recognize that there are going to inevitably be some bad marriages and those people need to split up.   Maybe it’s nobody’s fault, maybe you can lay the blame at somebody’s feet, but every marriage is not going to be forever. People change. They get married too soon, too young, too unaware, blinded by passion and then one day they open up their eyes to a different person than the one they thought they knew.  They should be able to go their separate ways and start over.

But the second point jives with what Francis is trying to tell us. There is a sanctity in marriage, and not just for the Christian Faithful, but for everyone. Our partners in life, those with whom we beget our children should be our best beloved, and in that deep, ineffable affection and the intimacy of sexual union we find the Divine.  Call it God, call it whatever you want, it’s sacred.  Marriage should  ideally be for the long haul. But we live in a world of refunds, retooling, redecorating, and regifting. We have even invented the word “trial marriage”, an irritating phrase if ever there was one.

Forget for a moment the annoyance you may feel at celibate men of the Church ordering you around in this realm of intimacy and domesticity.  The world would be a better place if marriage were viewed as a sacrament instead of a tax benefit. The Pope is doubtlessly correct that many of us are woefully unprepared to be good spouses. But what is sacramental about the union of two souls, is not what happens in front of an altar as a priest utters some magic words. The sacrament lies deep in the heart of the bride and groom if they really care about each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other and work together to make the marriage more important than either of their own individual lives. It is that depth of feeling that unites them, and makes them married in a spiritual sense. It is Divine. But you have to work at it.

 

Pope Francis Does It Again!

In a new “Exhortation” entitled “On Love in the Family” the Pope has broken new ground in humanizing the Catholic faith.   So much of this is desperately needed that it bears repeating, so here’s some of what he had to say:

1) Get it Together, Men! The Pope goes after domestic violence and verbal abuse of women as the antithesis of what a loving union should be.  Absolutely!

2) Not Sex Ed, …Love Ed: he warns about the danger of encouraging adolescents to “toy with their bodies and desires” treating the other person as a means of blithely fulfilling their own needs. They need to be taught that sexual union is based on a profound love, not personal gratification.

3) Treat Gays Kindly: we must respect the dignity of all, regardless of sexual orientation, and treat everyone with consideration

4) Stop Dissing the Divorcees: far from ostracizing those who get divorced, we must encourage them to be part of the community

A lot of this comes down to that best of all Bible passages: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It also emphasizes the need for a serious education, starting in childhood, on what this whole range of mysteries is all about: sexual attraction, marriage, and sexual union.  Too often we’re doing a bad job of this right now.   Mother Jones recently published an article on the “Abstinence Only” sex ed laws in Tennessee, which got their start when the daughter of a legislator in that state came home to announce that her instructor in AIDS prevention had illustrated the use of condoms by rolling one onto a vibrator—with her mouth!

Yes, that would do it.

We desperately need to let our children know that sexual union is sacred and it all ties in with how we treat each other as sexual partners and how we regard the sexual orientation of others. This needs to be taught in the home and taught at school, no matter what you think about God.

On the other hand, there are some things in Francis’s exhortation that are problematic, even for the most devoted Catholics. Take the Pope’s unhappiness with birth control, for example. Francis jumps on the fact that we call contraception “protection,” as if a future child were an enemy.

Semantics can be such a problem.

Even in the most Catholic countries, couples are ignoring the Church’s teaching on this point and using birth control in massive numbers.   If they were not, there would be millions of unwanted babies. The “enemy” if there is one, is not the child, it’s Want, Poverty, Starvation and all the social ills that come with them. The Pope and his men seem unaware of the dangers of the Population Bomb, or if they are, apparently they would address it by having us buck up, strengthen our self-control, and simply refrain more often from sexual activity to avoid the 12-child family.   They are dreaming. We are programmed to procreate–the urge is too great for most to resist.  Without contraception famine, wars over scarce resources, and mass migrations of peoples would overwhelm the earth even more than they already are.

So Two Cheers for Pope Francis, and thank God that Catholics around the world are using their common sense where it’s badly needed to keep Poverty at bay.