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.

Mr. Rogers, Christianity, and Jordan Peterson

Let us pause a moment and sing in praise of Fred “Mr.” Rogers.   Having now seen the documentary that just came out on his life and his work, I think there can be no hesitation in conferring upon him the mantle of secular sainthood.

What a guy.

Mr. Rogers was a Christian.  In fact, he was an ordained minister.  But he didn’t talk much about Christianity, or the Bible, or Christ.   His was the kind of Christianity that is so desperately needed today, not the holier-than-thou kind, not the in-your-face kind, or the pound-the-pulpit kind, but the human kind that ministers to humankind.   For him it was about making heartfelt connections with children—part of what I call the Sacrament of Birth.  Child rearing is an extension of  that holiest of moments when a new soul enters our world and Mr. Rogers was a man who instinctively knew how to reach out to children in a  way that drew them to him.  He didn’t need to mention Jesus to get the message across.

Critics, among them Jordan Peterson, have castigated those who promote the “everyone’s special” plan of childrearing, finding in it the root of a slacker culture that doesn’t know how to get off its duff and do some real work to earn a living, dammit!   But as his friends in the documentary explain, for Mr. Rogers  “you’re special” simply meant letting a child know that he or she was loved and accepted.  That acceptance would create a secure foundation in children to help them face the challenges and confusion and anxiety of growing up.  I don’t know if Peterson specifically mentions Mr. Rogers in his many hours of video online, but to my thinking their messages are in synch.   A good dose of Mr. Rogers would help you stand up straight and face the world, which is the first rule of Peterson’s Twelve Rules of Life.

I never saw Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, having grown up in the earlier Captain Kangaroo era, but my father-in-law knew Fred Rogers and told us, he was the real deal, a man whose TV persona was exactly the same as who he was day in, day out, at home, or testifying in front of Congress.  Watch that scene in the film of the congressional hearing where the very existence of Public Television is on the line and a belligerent Senator Pastore is about ready to pull the plug on the funding. When Fred Rogers begins to speak, there is an almost immediate change in the atmosphere.  There is a power in him, a power that fills the chamber. It’s awesome in the original sense of the word.

He was a guy who could look you square in the face and talk sincerely about feelings, and problems, and all kinds of important things, and whether you were a child or a hard-boiled politician, you listened and knew you could believe him and trust him.

He was the kind of guy you’d want to have as your neighbor.

Unbelief on the Move, thank the good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.

The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never hard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Thomas Carlyle, the Church and the Sacred

An op-ed piece in the New York Times today reminds us of the power of the Church to satisfy the longing to be part of a group–the Sacrament of the Group as I call it in my book.  Writer Margaret Renkl explains that she has periodically given up on the Catholic Church for various reasons I have mentioned in this space in the past, but she is nevertheless still drawn to it.  She misses the congregation, the babies, the prayers for peace, the feeling that you’re on the same track with like-minded people.

She writes:

“I seem to have been born with a constant ache for the sacred, a deep-rooted need to offer thanks, to ask for help, to sing out in fathomless praise to something. In time I found my way back to God, the most familiar and fundamental something I knew, even if by then my conception of the divine had enlarged beyond any church’s ability to define or contain it.”

The sacred can be found all around us, of course.  It doesn’t have to start with the idea of a God, or gods, it’s inevitably part of who we are as human beings.    Divinity is simply in us, in our thoughts and actions and connections to the world.   For example, Renkl notes that she often feels that God is more present when she’s taking a walk in the woods than when she is in the church building itself (the Sacrament of Nature).   She also misses the singing at Sunday mass (the Sacrament of the Arts).  Our connections with nature and with the arts are essential parts of our humanity and bring us closer to a sense of the Divine, as do the other sacramental aspects of our human existence.

Renkl’s observations are an echo of the so-called “Clothes Philosophy” of Thomas Carlyle.  It goes like this: clothes determine the appearance of men and women, yet underneath those clothes is a body–a body much more real than coats and dresses.  In the same way  our institutions like the Church are merely “visible emblems” of the spiritual forces they represent.   Even in his day (early 1800s) Carlyle found the Church was worn out and almost worthless, but the Spirit beneath the Church’s “clothes” was still there and needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Where can we go with these kinds of sacred longings if we’re not happy with the churches we grew up with?  How can we keep the Spirit alive?  There are a few alternatives, and they are growing. Places like the Humanist Hub in Boston offer a regular meeting to the non-theists, the “Nones” out there who want to find like-minded people ready to acknowledge the need for the Sacrament of the Group. To the theists I would say, that a humanist’s conception of the Divine is not far removed from yours–it’s two sides of the same coin, or as  Carlyle put it:  “the name of the Infinite is GOOD, is GOD,” .

Calling All Exorcists! Demons on the Loose!

The news out of the Vatican this week is that there’s a shortage of exorcists. The answer? A big training program to take place this April in order to bring the supply up to a level with the demand.   Apparently in Italy there are about half a million cases of demonic possession a year and only about 200 priests available to drive those demons out. The number of cases of possession has tripled there recently, according to one exorcist, because of the popularity of fortune tellers, tarot, and witches. The exorcists will learn the Catholic rites and be sent on their way, armed with the cross and holy water to do battle with the forces of evil.

Are you shaking your head at this? Are you thinking what a bunch of silly mumbo-jumbo? You would not be alone in our increasingly secular world. But the interesting thing is the superstition angle.   If you’re not an ardent Catholic, you would look on this whole demonic possession thing as some ancient attempt to account for what we today would attribute to a psychological disorder. The abnormal mind was a mystery back then, so our ancestors pulled a Being out of thin air, fashioned it in their own image, called it the Devil, gave him a mission, and voila, he’s still with us today, living not in in the minds of the mentally ill, but rather, the skeptic would say, in the minds of gullible Catholics.

But if you are a serious Catholic, you would say the superstition works the other way around: it’s the people going to a tarot reading, or an astrologer, or trying to tap into the collective unconscious who are, sadly, being lured into a superstitious swamp, led by none other than the very Devil they claim to scoff at. One German prelate, Helmut Moll, an expert on exorcism, admits the existence of psychological illness, but adamantly insists that possession is just as real. The priest has to work with the doctor to differentiate the two, he says, but each has a different, but important task to do.

Two versions of reality! What’s a confused 21st century seeker to do? Well, if our education system were working properly, you’d hope they’d ask, “Is there any evidence that your view is the correct one?”

The Catholic: (thrilled that he will now win the argument) Oh course there is!   Look at what Jesus did in the Gospels! There it is in black and white! Straight from the pen of unknown scribes who wrote decades after Jesus died and who I’m sure would never make up these stories.

The Astrologer: (equally thrilled)  Of course there is!  My predictions are correct 30% of the time!

The Seeker: (silently places his Bible and his star chart in a box and sends them to the national Museum of Curiosities)

G.B. Shaw on Right-Wing Christians

I heard a powerful speaker yesterday at the Humanist Hub, just off Harvard Square. Eugene Scott is a writer for the Washington Post whose specialty is religion and politics. One of the things he said especially struck me: you have to divide American Christians into two camps. In the first group are those you could have a conversation with and perhaps come to some agreements with about public policy. These are thoughtful people, not too happy with Trump, who might be willing to admit that the Bible is not a word-for-word dictation from the Deity.

The second group of Christians are people who will never be convinced to change their thinking on anything. They feel threatened by social change, they like Trump, facts are fake news, and their heads are stuffed firmly into the far-right sands, unable to contemplate the world the rest of us live in. They want nothing less than a return to what they think made America great in the past. They want a Christian nation, a Roy Moore nation, where we fix the problems facing us by putting prayer back in the schools.

This parallels what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a short piece from 1932 called The Black Girl in Search of God, in which he excoriates the hide-bound Christians of his day for not being able to distinguish the fact that there are several “Gods” in the Bible, each an improvement over the one that appeared before it. The God of Noah was a primitive God, an angry God, Who wiped out virtually the entire human race and then was appeased by Noah’s offering of the “sweet savor” of burning flesh.   The God of Job, on the other hand, was on familiar terms with the Devil, was philosophical, argumentative, and tolerant. “People who cannot see the difference between these two Gods cannot pass the most elementary test of intelligence: they cannot distinguish between similar and dissimilars.” Later, the Bible introduces us to the God of Micah and of course Jesus—each more different still.

In his typical style, Shaw does not mince words when it comes to religious extremists: “People whose education in [science and history] is derived from the Bible are so absurdly misinformed as to be unfit for public employment, parental responsibility, or the franchise.” In other words, fundamentalist Christians cannot be expected to vote with any discernment. As Eugene Scott said, you pretty much have to give up on ever trying to convince them of anything: they are blinded by the Bible and Breitbart News.

So where does that leave us? I would hope that the Seven Universal Sacraments would provide some relief from this schizophrenic society outlined by Shaw and Scott. We share common ground in the physical world and we need to find common ground spiritually and politically.

The other place it leaves us is the public schools.  The homeschool movement along with the Christian schools are worrisome.   What is actually being taught there?  If we don’t support public education and create safe spaces where “similar and dissimilars” can be analyzed and discussed, where our citizens can be taught to think instead of simply believe, where we can engage religious fundamentalists in some kind of meaningful dialogue, then we’re going to remain stuck in Trumpland, sniping at each other, lurching from protest to protest, waiting for the next scandal, stupidity, or slaughter.

It’s a lot to fix.

Pope Francis and the Lord’s Prayer: The Devil is in the Details

This week Pope Francis made an announcement: the version of the Lord’s Prayer that we all had to learn in our various tongues contained a bad translation of one line: “lead us not into temptation.” It should be don’t let us “fall into” temptation, because God is good, and would not “lead us” into temptation, as if He were engaged in some sting operation for the FBI, just waiting for us to snatch at the bait before leaping out with a big “Ah ha! Just as I suspected!” and consigning us directly to the appropriate level of hell. No, He does not work that way, Francis tells us. Rather it is the Devil who is out there leading us to temptation, working against all that God wants for us, slipping little enticements our way, hoping we will forget the precepts of parent, priest, and parochial school for just one minute of sinful pleasure, whether it be a lurid leer at a coveted co-worker or some private worship of His rival god, Mammon.

For those who suspect that the Devil may be a figment of someone’s imagination rather than an actual intelligent being of some kind, Francis’ textual concerns are somewhat disheartening, playing as they do into the superstitious aspects of religion that get us bogged down in pointless arguments about miracles and other parlor tricks that are reported to have occurred two millennia ago. The reaction to Francis’ pronouncement has already ranged from scorn to puzzlement to thoughtfulness.  Verily, in good sooth, “the devil is in the details” of this prayer, one of the pillars of Christendom.

But if we reframe Francis’ thoughts, it’s not so far out there for someone of a humanist stripe to accept, because what he’s really saying is we can make bad choices and good choices in life, and what we want is to avoid the bad and head toward the good. Whether it’s God helping you to lean in one direction and the Devil prodding you in the other with that infamous pitchfork of his, is something that shouldn’t distract us from the point that we need to exercise some moral judgment in our lives on a daily basis, and the gauge for making those choices has to be the Greater Good, which is rooted inevitably in avoiding hurt to others, and bringing as much joy as possible to those around us.   Old Nick, Beelzebub, and Co. are those selfish genes in us all, the impulse to have it all for ourselves, the bestial instincts that helped us survive the rigors of natural selection as we climbed up through the evolutionary branches.   Once we became self-aware a different ethic arose and God, in the form of the Greater Good, was born, you might say, or we were born again in God, if that is more to your liking.   However you think of it, the result is the same in the end: get out there and spread compassion to make the world a better place.

An interesting side note is that the phrase “The devil is in the details” derives from a much earlier German saying: “Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail”—it is not the Devil, but God who lives in the details.  Focussing on getting the little things right can bring us closer to our higher selves.  It’s the zen of washing dishes, of being mindful in all of our daily tasks and interactions.

 

 

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.