Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ecclesiological Options and the Church of Postmodernity

In these days of commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Humanae vitae, I’ve been asking myself what-if questions about where the church finds itself now. To be specific: what if Ratzinger had appropriated the Nazi period and its aftermath quite differently than he has done? What if he had approached that period of dark kairos in a way similar to that of his countrymen Rahner and Metz?

The trajectory of Catholicism at the end of the 20th century was decisively set by two men—John Paul II and Ratzinger—who reacted to the horrors of the 20th century in a quite specific way, one that has determined the course of the church into the 21st century. That there were other options for the church—other ways to appropriate what happened in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—is apparent in the theology of both Rahner and Metz. Had the church chosen to follow the path sketched by the theology of Rahner and Metz, it would be in a very different place now—one, I believe, that would far better situate it to be an effective sacramental sign of salvation in the world than the option chosen by John Paul II and that pope’s chief theological advisor, the current pope, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

The contrast between Ratzinger and Metz is especially illuminating. When I read Ratzinger on the Nazi period, I’m constantly struck by the dichotomous (and, ultimately, false) way in which he presents the relationship between the Catholic church and the Nazis. To hear Ratzinger tell the story, the church was the sole locus of sanity in a world that went mad with ethnic hatred and blood lust, with total lack of respect for human life, in the Holocaust period.

That sharp dichotomy between church and world that characterizes the ecclesiology of both John Paul II and Ratzinger is apparent already in Ratzinger’s attempt to come to terms with what his countrymen did in the 1930s and 1940s, and with how the church responded. The church held fast to authentic human values and respect for life; the Nazis crossed the line and quickly went to hell, with eugenic experimentation and extermination of the mentally and physically challenged, of “inferior” races, and so on. In the church, light; in the world, darkness. In the church, Christ; in the world, the devil.

To think this way is to disregard the testimony of history. Sadly, the church was simply not the beacon of light in the mid-20th century that Ratzinger would have us remember it as. Its witness against the atrocities of the Nazis was muted, tragically mixed, and compromised. The response of the church was often, at best, one of indifferent silence, at worst, one of complicity.

Certainly, there were courageous Catholics, including many priests and religious, who actively resisted the Nazis. Some of them paid the price of martyrdom for their courageous witness. We should remember them. And we do—primarily because they stand out so sharply from the mass of their co-religionists at the time, in their willingness to speak out.

On the whole, the church stood by in silence as millions of human beings were slaughtered. At its worst (as with the Austrian bishops), it actively welcomed the Nazis as saviors of the church from the scourges of godless communism. The historic legacy of antisemitism in the church, a legacy whose roots go back to the very beginning of Christianity, bore bitter fruit in the 20th century in the church’s timid, unconvincing response to the Nazis.

Ratzinger does not admit this. In refusing to admit it, he falsifies history, and builds on the basis of that falsification an ecclesiology inadequate to meet the challenges of the postmodern period. His fellow countryman, his fellow Bavarian, Metz, has quite different memories of the Nazi period, and out of those memories, fashions a very different ecclesiology—one that, had the institutional church chosen it in the latter part of the 20th century, would place us in a very different place today.

Growing up in a small Bavarian village during World War II (just as Ratzinger did), Metz recalls the silence of his Catholic village about the presence of a death-camp just outside the village. Metz writes about how the people in his village continued praying, singing, going to liturgy, knowing full well that other human beings were being murdered outside the village all the while. And saying nothing. Just as the church itself, in its institutional mode, said nothing.

For Metz, silence was not an adequate response to what happened in the Holocaust. In contrast to Ratzinger, Metz could not defend the silence of the church or try to cast re-read that silence as some kind of noble, prophetic witness against all odds when a savage state was persecuting the church. Metz reads the silence for what it was: complicity. In refusing to stand up against—in refusing even to admit—what they knew was going on right in their midst, Catholics failed to live the gospel at a time of tremendous need for prophetic Christian witness.

Much of Metz’s ecclesiological work following the Nazi period is a meditation on how and why the church is able to turn a deaf ear to the cries of the oppressed for liberation—when the church can very well make a difference. Metz critiques the church that turns in on itself, pretending it can pray and conserve its faith as it ignores the suffering of the world around it.

Metz’s reading of the critical theorists led him to recognize that there are, at all periods of history, many currents at work in the world to imagine and bring about a more humane future for the world. Out of this insight, Metz developed a theology in which the church must always be in active collaborative dialogue with secular currents that are moving along with the church towards the horizon of hope—as the church itself moves, through its proclamation of the gospel and its attempt to be an adequate sacramental representation of the reign of God in history.

Rahner, too, followed a very different ecclesiological path after the Nazi period than did Ratzinger. Rahner’s attempt to re-read Thomist theology in light of the personalist philosophies of the early 20th century—his theology of transcendental Thomism—reflects on the venerable Catholic maxim that grace builds on nature.

In Rahner’s theology, the entire “natural” world is imbued with grace. Nature and grace are not at war with one another; church and world are not enemies. Salvation is not extrinsic to the world; it is the very core, the deepest history, of the world as the world fulfills its destiny.

The dichotomy between church and world that so decisively shapes the theology of John Paul II and Ratzinger—a dichotomy in which the church alone represents salvation—is not present in Rahner’s thought. In a world in which grace is active everywhere and at all times to draw the world to salvation, the church is, of course, a sacramental sign of salvation: but it is a sign of a salvation that is not the exclusive prerogative of the church or of Christians. It is the sign of a salvation that God is effecting everywhere, for all creation, not only for those calling themselves Christian.

Though Rahner speaks at times of the church of the remnant, he has explicitly repudiated the notion of the smaller, purer church that informs the ecclesiology of Ratzinger. Rahner notes that his church of the remnant is a church engaged in active collaborative dialogue with the world, not a cult of true believers turning its back on the world. Rahner’s ecclesiology also grants something that is hardly ever granted in the ecclesiology of Ratzinger and John Paul II—namely, that the church is sinful, even as it is holy and a sacramental sign of grace.

What a different church we would be living in now, had either Rahner or Metz, or both, had the honor, privilege, and power of Ratzinger under the papacy of John Paul II. Ratzinger and John Paul II closed many doors that both Rahner and Metz would have left open: dialogic doors of welcome to Christians of other communions; to the world religions; to secular movements working for a more humane world; to women and laypersons; to theologians. The ecclesiology of both Rahner and Metz opens to all those groups, since God is never the captive of the church and its clerical elite in the theology of Rahner and Metz.

I cannot help suspecting that it is not merely the staunch intent to stand against the godless relativism of secular modernity that forms the very core of the ecclesiology of both John Paul II and Ratzinger. Both maintained that the true face of 20th-century secular relativism was apparent in Nazi ideology and the ideology of state socialism in the Soviet Union. Both saw the church as the only adequate fortress against that godless ideology and its ravages.

But both ended up with an ecclesiology that also implicitly defends the continuation of a system of clerical power and privilege that is equated with the essence of Christianity—of their clerical power and privilege. In the crisis of sexual abuse of children, we are just beginning to see the price the church has been paying for its idolatrous continuation of this changeable, historically developed polity of church governance.

And as we do so, some of the most important voices in the church to help us meet the challenge of this crisis have been silenced. At a moment in history when we need many voices speaking confidently of the experience of grace within many different social contexts, we have a unitary voice—the voice of the church’s clerical elite—seeking to represent itself as the sole possible voice of the church in the postmodern period. At a moment in which thoughtful dialogue with an increasingly complex secular culture is imperative—in which an educated laity could well lead such dialogue on many fronts—we have a church intent on curbing critical thought, a church intent on imposing simplistic litmus tests of orthodoxy, a church intent on hounding out its best and brightest in the name of preserving orthodoxy,

when what is actually being preserved is clerical power and privilege, at a cost we too few of us have even begun to recognize, in this period in which the church's influence in the public square could be so much more cogent, had the project of Vatican II not been deliberately stopped by the previous pope and his theological advisor and successor, Cardinal Ratzinger . . . .

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remembering Humanae Vitae: Whose Voice/Experience Counts?

The 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, continuing the Catholic condemnation of artificial contraception, is eliciting a lot of commentary, some of it frankly unbelievable. After the national American Catholic weekly the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published a judicious assessment of the encyclical and its effects (a growing gulf between official church teachings and Catholic practice, overwhelming rejection of the encyclical by Catholic laity, sexual morality teaching out of sync with the experience of lay Catholics, an ongoing cycle of disbelief and dysfunction), the NCR blog for the editorial was blanketed with orchestrated right-wing Catholic statements accusing NCR of undermining orthodoxy (see

What strikes me as so strange about the right-wing commentary is its attempt to deny plain truth: Humanae vitae’s position on artificial contraception is a teaching that is not being received by the people of God, and for sound, rather than capricious, reasons. The teaching does not fit the deep intuition of Christian layfolks that human sexuality means more than cattle-like reproduction. Marital sexuality is as much about expressing and building love between spouses as it is about desiring to conceive.

And it is clearly possible to separate the two meanings of marital sexuality, despite the continuing insistence of right-wing Catholics that the attempt to do so undermines the “natural” meaning of human sexuality. When a teaching about something as central to human experience as the meaning of marital sexuality is widely rejected as flawed by the people of God, something is awry. And no amount of blustering and bullying is going to change that reality.

One of the most puzzling statements I’ve read about Humanae vitae in this period commemorating the encyclical's 40th anniversary is John Allen’s op-ed statement “The Pope vs. the Pill” in last Sunday’s New York Times ( Allen argues that Humanae vitae has demonstrated “surprising resilience” and is still “in vigor.”

What can those claims possibly mean, in light of well-founded research demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vast majority of Catholics reject this teaching—and not for capricious, but for considered, prayed-over, thought-through reasons, reasons that constitute sound discernment of the Spirit? Allen even admits the data showing that the encyclical has not been received.

What can it mean to claim that a statement of church teaching is “in vigor” and “surprisingly resilien[t]” when the large majority of believers not merely ignore but repudiate the teaching? The implication of Allen’s analysis—a nasty implication, I would propose—is that the faithful’s reception of doctrine means nothing at all, when Rome speaks. One can claim that Humanae vitae is still lively and effective only if one totally discounts the perceived effect of church teaching on real human lives and real human experience.

This is a problem I’ve had with Allen’s work for some time. When the Vatican began to make menacing threats about purging gays in the seminary, Allen wrote a fawning piece for the Times that sought to present this ugly scapegoating tactic (a diversionary tactic designed to convince us that the crisis of sexual abuse of minors in the priesthood is due to the considerable presence of gays in the priesthood) in the most favorable light possible.

When the Times published Allen’s piece, a number of theologians—including the well-respected lay theologian Paul Lakeland—as well as leaders of American religious communities objected to Allen’s thesis. Their responses noted the clear scapegoating of gay seminarians going on with the Vatican initiative, the refusal on the part of church leaders to admit what everyone knows: that this is a crisis of abuse of clerical power, a crisis of clericalism, not a crisis due to the sexual orientation of priests and seminarians.

I have long been perturbed by Allen’s tendency to be an apologist for Rome. I understand that one does not have entrĂ©e into the old boys’ club of the Vatican if one is not capable of seeming to be an insider. I realize that Allen’s analysis is devoured particularly by clergy, who find it “balanced” (read: non-threatening), in contrast to more incisive ecclesiological analysis such as Paul Lakeland’s.

Nonetheless, when one attains insider status only to speak with the voice from the center, one’s journalistic analysis is in danger of becoming special pleading and not “balanced” or “objective” reporting. Above all, I am perturbed by Allen’s elision of the effects of church teachings about sexual morality on the real lives of real human beings. I find Allen tone-deaf to the well-warranted expressions of pain on the part of gay Catholics, who experience church teaching about our human natures and lives lived under the impetus of the Spirit as destructive and unjust. I can no longer read any of his presentations of the Vatican inside story without sensing his strong inability to cope with the shadow side of church teachings such as the teaching on artificial contraception or on homosexuality.

Given the witness of theologians such as Paul Lakeland and of leaders of American religious communities about the shortcomings of Allen’s ecclesiology—a witness that concurs with my analysis, I believe—one has to wonder about the use of John Allen by the mainstream media to present “the” Catholic voice on the Vatican. The letters of protest to the Times following Allen’s glowing presentation of the Vatican initiative against gay seminarians and gay priests didn’t make a dent in the Times’ choice to continue publishing Allen’s pieces as authoritative analyses of Vatican events.

And Allen has now been picked up by CNN to be its Vatican correspondent. One can only conclude that the mainstream media have a vested interest in seeing moderately conservative analysis of Vatican politics and of church teachings as authoritative analysis.

This mainstream media assessment of Allen’s work overlooks—and, it would appear, deliberately so—the strong and justifiable critique of his work by those who experience church teaching on issues such as sexuality differently than Allen himself evidently does. The implication: our voices and our experience, painful though it be, simply does not count, in the eyes of those who determine whose voice counts and who doesn’t, in the halls of power.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Faith In America: Challenging Bigotry Masquerading as Religious Truth

A recent email announcement from the organization Faith In America (see the list of links for this blog) contains some heartening news about how our justice system is continuing to connect the dots between racial and homophobic bigotry. Faith In America notes that California attorney Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), recently praised Faith In America for helping to connect the dots through a June 2007 press conference featuring Mildred Loving.

Mildred Loving was a plaintiff in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, which led to the abolition of laws forbidding interracial marriage. In June 2007, at a press conference sponsored by Faith In America, Mildred Loving issued a statement in which she said gay and lesbian Americans should not be denied the right to marry the person they love.

According to Shannon Minter, this statement had a significant influence on the thinking of the majority of California Supreme Court justices who recently struck down the state’s laws forbidding gay marriage. In one of the concurring opinions supporting the California Supreme Court decision, Justice Joyce L. Kennard echoed the logic of Loving v. Virginia to permit interracial marriage, as she argued:

The architects of our federal and state Constitutions understood that widespread and deeply rooted prejudices may lead majoritarian institutions to deny fundamental freedoms to unpopular minority groups, and that the most effective remedy for this form of oppression is an independent judiciary charged with the solemn responsibility to interpret and enforce the constitutional provisions guaranteeing fundamental freedoms and equal protection.

Mitchell Gold, founder of Faith In America, states,

We were most pleased to learn that the Loving statement played a role in helping the justices connect the dots between the injustice of bigotry and discrimination against minorities in the past and the injustice that exists today from the deep-seated hostility and prejudice toward gay and lesbian individuals that is so often justified by misguided religious teaching and tradition with religious institutions.

The plaintiffs' arguments in the case appealed to the most fundamental aspect of not only this case but for all efforts to allow gay and lesbian people to enjoy the same human dignity that all Americans have an inalienable right to enjoy. Nothing should be allowed to stand opposed to such a basic human right. And without doubt, the bigotry and prejudice behind opposition to just a basic human right should never be allowed to masquerade as religious truth.

The bigotry and prejudice behind opposition to just a basic human right should never be allowed to masquerade as religious truth: simple logic. Profound truth.

For more information on the connections between the struggle for the right of gay persons to marry, and the previous struggle for the right of interracial couples to marry, see The resources on this weblink of Faith In America include a video clip of civil rights leader Julian Bond speaking about the Loving decision and its connection to gay marriage.

The Men Who Rule Us: Assuring Clerical Dominance

This is not an easy time in which to write. We’re preparing for a funeral. Even so, I don’t want to let my train of thought stop short. I offer the following reflections with the proviso that they are sketchy, written as my mind and heart are occupied with other matters now.

I wrote last week about the shared interest of men—straight-identified men—in continuing their dominance in the leadership sectors of all mainstream churches. I wrote about how the system of clericalism—a system built on male domination of women, and on the domination of gay men by straight-presenting men—is a system deeply entrenched in all the mainstream churches. There is a shared interest among the leaders of the churches in seeing that the system of clerical control remains intact, an interest that transcends denominational boundary lines.

I’m aware that not all mainstream churches resist the ordination of women, as the Catholic and Orthodox churches do. Even so, I would argue that in those churches in which women are now able to be ordained (e.g., the United Methodist, Episcopal Church USA, Anglican, Presbyterian), men still strongly dominate. One would have to be blind not to see the manifold ways in which institutional power prefers men—straight-acting ones—over women in the structures of these churches.

No matter how brilliant a woman’s seminary career is, she is highly unlikely to step into a pastorate as plush as the one afforded to her straight-presenting male counterpart when seminary ends. And she is far less likely ever to capture the pulpit of the “first” churches of the denomination, the ones from whose pulpit “the” Methodist/Presbyterian, etc., voice is beamed out across a state each Sunday.

I long since gave up attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion because I was, frankly, tired of rubbing shoulders with bearded, tweed-jacketed straight-presenting married men who claim to have the final word on matters religious. After I finished graduate school, I no longer had to choose to affiliate with these men who rule us. When it became obvious to me that I wouldn’t be accorded a voice, anyway, I gladly stopped rubbing shoulders with those of privileged voice, since I have my own thoughts to think, and nothing is more distracting than listening to empty cant when it postures as the final word.

Given the common interests of the system of clericalism across denominational lines, it is not surprising to discover how ready the Vatican or Orthodox patriarchs are today to shore up the “traditional” males-only, no-gay-allowed clerical system of the Anglican communion—even when the Vatican has long since declared Anglican orders invalid! Under the guise of defending orthodoxy and tradition, the men who rule us in the churches are actually defending their own clerical power and privilege, their exclusive right to represent the unitary voice that speaks on behalf of their communion. The future of Christianity is, to a great extent, being staked today on the single doctrine of male domination—of women and of men construed as feminine, due to their gay sexual orientation.

This is the why of clericalism and of its tremendous push to preserve (and extend) itself at this point in Christian history, at all costs. The how of clericalism is perhaps less obvious, less simple to analyze. It is less simple to analyze because the clerical system manages to maintain its control throughout the Christian communions by manifold expressions of power and privilege whose mechanisms are usually hidden from public view.

My own entry point for obtaining a glimpse of the system of clerical dominance in ugly operation has been in academic life. Last week, my friend Colleen Baker reported on her Enlightened Catholicism blog that Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether had recently been named to the Msgr. John R. Portman Chair of the University of San Diego—only to find herself summarily disinvited from the Chair after her appointment was announced (see The university provost tells Ruether that the anonymous donor who provided funding for this chair had a different vision for it than Ruether represents.

Rosemary Ruether notes that the San Diego decision is troubling on several fronts—most of all, because it implicitly denies academic freedom to the faculty who chose her for the chair. It is important to me to note that 1) the donor’s name has not been made public; 2) the donor can exercise great influence over intra-collegial decisions while remaining hidden—an unenviable development, since this opens the door to allowing academic discourse to be “bought” by unnamed powerful interest groups; and 3) the secretiveness with which the matter is now being handled underscores Ruether’s point that academic freedom is being threatened.

Academic freedom by its very nature demands that controversial decisions such as this be brought into the light of day for open, free consideration within the collegial context. Whenever the leaders of an academic institution resort to the cover of darkness for their actions—when they refuse to allow the reasons for major decisions to be made public and discussed in the public forum—one can be assured that the reasons don’t bear scrutiny and won’t stand up under collegial investigation.

What happened to Rosemary Ruether at the University of San Diego is, unfortunately, becoming all too common in church-sponsored institutions of higher learning. Since theologians are the one “official” critical voice that, by its very calling, must continue to talk about issues even when church authorities have tabled them, and must pursue truth that the power centers of church and society wish to avoid facing, then for social and ecclesial power centers that wish to reduce the truth proclaimed by a religious community to a unitary voice, it is important to suppress the voices of theologians. As Ruether’s story illustrates, it is relatively easy—and becoming ever easier—for church leaders to accomplish this using sub rosa channels of economic power and influence within university structures in which the powerful behind-the-scenes players who assist church leaders in maintaining their dominance are never revealed.

We live at a moment in Christian history when we will be seeing more and more attempts to curb and norm the conversation within churches, and to place it under the direct control of church leaders intent on representing their voice as the voice of the communion. What happened to Rosemary Ruether brings to mind what happened to another Catholic theologian, Charles Curran, over a decade ago.

In 1990, after he was dumped by Catholic University of America when his teaching about homosexuality and birth control earned him Vatican censure, Curran was offered tenure at Auburn University in Alabama. After the appointment was made, however, the university president announced that he would not be giving tenure to Curran. No reason was provided for this decision. At the time, there was discussion of the possible influence of Mobile Catholic archbishop Oscar Lipscomb on the Auburn president’s decision. Curran reported that Lipscomb had admitted to him that he had discussed Curran’s case with a Catholic trustee at Auburn—though Lipscomb denied having sought to influence the Auburn decision.

Charles Curran filed suit against Catholic University for his termination, only to find that the court upheld the right of the university to fire faculty members—even tenured ones—on religious grounds. The Curran case has created an ugly precedent whereby church-affiliated schools can now freely violate the academic freedom of faculty members while citing religious privilege as they do so—though schools usually employ covert ways of curbing or dismissing faculty members rather than outright termination. They do so because, even with court-defended religious exemptions, academic accrediting societies still demand that schools pay lip service to academic freedom, if the schools expect to be accredited.

Stating that one is terminating a faculty member because his/her work violates the religious beliefs of the university places a school in the unenviable position of appearing not to respect academic freedom. It is simply easier to cook up some other spurious reason (e.g., “inability to cooperate with this administration,” “lack of collegiality”) for the termination, so as to avoid negative publicity and court battles.

What happened to Curran and to Rosemary Ruether illustrates how the power centers of churches control and disempower theologians today across denominational lines. They do so via hidden channels of influence that operate at the level of presidents and boards of trustees, channels never exposed to public scrutiny. When decisions such as the Ruether or Curran decision are made by presidents and boards of trustees, the true story of how the academic freedom of a theologian is violated is never told: the story of midnight calls to pressure a president, of threats to withhold funding, of moral emptiness on the part of university and church leaders, of manufactured reasons for dismissal or denial of tenure that have nothing to do with reality, of boards of trustees that will not hold presidents accountable even when the moral vacuity of a president is patent, and so on.

If there is any truth to Curran’s assertion that Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb played a role in Auburn’s decision to deny tenure to him (and I believe there is), then this story illustrates the collusion of power players beyond denominational lines, in the contemporary push to stop the voices of theologians. Auburn was Methodist-founded and is today a state university.

What interest could a Catholic bishop possibly have, or exert, in such an institution? And how could that interest be exerted? If answers to such questions were ever made public, we’d have a very clear picture, I believe, of how leaders of churches today (acting in collusion with each other and with powerful economic and political leaders) curb critical theological discourse in the academy in order to assure the continued dominance of the clerical system across denominational boundary lines, and the right of the men who rule the churches to speak unilaterally on behalf of “their” churches.

In such situations, one would expect accrediting bodies to play a significant role in assuring that academic freedom is respected. If a church-affiliated university freely violates the academic freedom of theologians, what is to prevent its doing something similar with professors of literature, sociology, biology, etc.? What university worth its name would willingly trample on the academic freedom of any of its faculty members?

Based on my own experiences within the academy, I am not sanguine about the role played by accrediting bodies in upholding academic freedom. As I have noted on this blog, I myself have had dismal experiences at two church-sponsored colleges/universities, both under the accreditation of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (SACS).

Both as an administrator in SACS-affiliated universities and as someone whose academic freedom was violated by universities accredited by SACS, I have observed that SACS bends over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the institution in cases in which faculty members report violations of academic freedom. In my first experience of being given a spurious terminal contract without any stated reason for the termination, and of being denied a written evaluation of my previous semester’s work, I met a brick wall when I reported what had happened to SACS.

Though I had ironclad proof that the academic vice-president had interfered in the operation of the college’s grievance committee, and though the refusal to provide a reason for my termination violates SACS’ own academic freedom statement, when I turned to SACS for support, SACS informed me that since the school had a grievance committee, I had had protection for my academic freedom. Never mind that this committee was a puppet committee that could not and did not act independently of the church authorities controlling the school . . . .

Because of this experience, I did not even bother turning to SACS on my second go-round at a SACS-accredited church-sponsored university. It was at this university that I was terminated without having even been given any evaluation of my year’s work—though, as I have noted on this blog, a document later came into my hands in which my supervisor reported to the board that a consultant who had been brought in to talk to me about SACS-accreditation issues had actually “evaluated” me and had recommended my termination.

I was never given this consultant’s report. I was not even told that he had “evaluated” me. I never had any evaluation of my work prior to my termination—a clear violation of SACS academic freedom regulations. The consultant brought in to “evaluate” me has published articles about the social construction of African-American manhood that are overtly homophobic. He is a Baptist Sunday School teacher. He is not even in the area in which he purportedly “evaluated” me—academic affairs—and is not even at a SACS-affiliated college. His knowledge of SACS standards was abysmal, I discovered when he met with me. If he “evaluated” me, he did so without ever having met me, on the basis of a single interview of an hour or so. And, given his background, it is impossible to imagine that his “evaluation” of me would in any way be unbiased. He was clearly brought in to do a hatchet job on an openly gay university administrator whose “lifestyle” he held in contempt, and he did his job well.

All of which is to say, it is not hard at all to silence theologians nowadays, particularly in church-affiliated universities, and especially in areas (such as the American Southeast) in which the commitment of academic accrediting bodies to academic freedom is weak when religious commitments are involved. When one takes into consideration the fact that laws protecting the rights of workers from wrongful termination are also weak in precisely the same areas of the country in which the churches’ right to terminate faculty on religious grounds is uncontested, one begins to understand why accrediting bodies in these areas are historically weak on academic freedom issues. To defend academic freedom, they would have to stand against strong currents of their culture—and against the powerful influence of the economic and political figures who collude with church leaders to silence critical voices.

There is a game-playing dimension to the way in which accrediting bodies go about investigating institutions of higher learning. As an academic administrator, time and again, I have seen accrediting bodies send to a church-affiliated college a team of investigators heavily weighted with team members from the denomination that sponsors the school in question.

When one considers that almost all presidents of universities sponsored by a particular institution have strong institutional ties to the governing structures of the denomination controlling their university, one can understand how it is that most accrediting visits don’t probe critically into allegations that academic freedom of faculty has been violated on religious grounds. In order to move some academic accrediting bodies in the direction of a defense of academic freedom, one would have to transform the culture of the accrediting bodies themselves: to the extent that they continue to be old-boys’ networks dominated by those with ties to church-affiliated colleges and universities, they will continue not to have a strong interest in promoting academic freedom or investigating cases in which universities they accredit have violated academic freedom of faculty on religious grounds.

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And now for a change of subject: since this and previous postings focus on bishops and church governing bodies, I would like to take this opportunity to note the reappointment of a United Methodist bishop whose name has figured in previous postings on this blog. I’m referring to Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida United Methodist Conference.

Bishop Whitaker has just been re-appointed to another quadrennial term as UMC Bishop of Florida. Florida interests me for a number of reasons outlined in previous postings on this blog, including the growing number of cases of violent assault of LGBT citizens in that state. This is also a state in which an explicitly anti-gay initiative is on the ballot for the next election cycle.

It’s a state, in other words, in which the churches’ pastoral efforts can do either much harm or cause much woe. As Florida deals with its issues with gay citizens, it’s interesting to note that, pastorally speaking, the central part of the state is now solidly under the control of bishops representing different churches, all of whom have taken public stands that many gay citizens see as less than welcoming to the gay community.

As a posting on this blog notes, at the most recent United Methodist General Assembly, Bishop Whitaker chaired the discussion that resulted in a vote to continue the current language of the Book of Discipline which sees the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian life (see My posting noted that participants in the debate at General Assembly were concerned with how Bishop Whitaker used parliamentary procedure to offset debate and to pave the way for a final statement in favor of the current policy by Rev. Eddie Fox, Director of UMC World Evangelism.

In a previous posting on this blog, I have also noted that the Catholic bishop of Orlando, Bishop Thomas Wenski, published a resoundingly anti-gay editorial in a newspaper in June (see Bishop Wenski calls for a continuation of the culture wars that have had such dismal effects on gay persons.

I have not touched previously on the Episcopal Bishop of Central Florida, Bishop John W. Howe. I should note that Bishop Howe appears to hold positions similar to those of his colleagues Bishops Whitaker and Wenski on gay persons and their inclusion in the church. All three of these gentlemen appear resolved to hold the line on gay persons and gay rights.

It would be interesting to know if any church-affiliated colleges or universities in this region manage to safeguard the right of faculty members to discuss gay and lesbian persons in a way that is more inclusive of these persons in the body of Christ . . . .

Rev. Whitaker’s friend Rev. Fox has been in the news again recently, and once again, in a way that makes clear his intent to continue defending the Methodist hard line against gay persons. When the California-Pacific and the California-Nevada Annual UMC Conferences both recently approved gay marriage and expressed support for pastors marrying gay couples, Rev. Fox responded by stating, "We've made it clear we adhere to biblical teaching and Christian tradition. Ninety-eight percent of Christians around the world believe marriage is between one man and one woman, so we're not out of step in our ecumenical relationships with Christians around the world" (see

It would be difficult to imagine a United Methodist university in which Rev. Fox has influence giving hospitality to a theologian who calls for open dialogue about the place of LGBT persons in the churches, or for critical discourse about the disparity between what the churches proclaim about being welcoming places for gay believers, and how they actually behave towards LGBT persons. Fox and those allied with him seem far more intent on shutting down this conversation, than they are on pursuing it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gay Sex as Sin: Dubious Polls as New Weapon of the Religious Right

Well, it turns out that I can’t be totally silent today. There’s one news item that, in my view, does demand some attention, because it’s already being latched onto by right-wing “Christian” websites.

Yesterday, the Times (London) reported the results of a recent survey by the British polling agency ComRes which found that 81% of British Protestants believe gay sex is a sin (see ComRes says that the poll is based on a sample of 517 British Protestants—I’ve seen no breakdown of the kind of Protestants polled, if, indeed, the poll did employ such fine-tuned analysis.

I have to say that I’m rather suspicious about this poll. Its release is clearly timed to coincide with the Lambeth Conference now underway in England. Indeed, the date of release seems timed to overlap with recent announcements at this worldwide Anglican conference of a report of senior bishops discouraging the ordination of gay bishops.

To see if I could get more specific data about the poll, I went to the ComRes website at Interestingly enough, I can’t locate a single reference to this poll on the ComRes website.

Why, I wonder? There are more recent announcements of other polling results. Why would this particular poll be either well-nigh impossible to find on the website, or totally overlooked by the polling company that undertook the survey?

What I do find on the website is interesting, however. ComRes regularly conducts polls for an organization calling itself the Christian Institute. This organization’s “Who We Are” statement by Director Colin Hart notes,

The Christian Institute exists for "the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom" and "the advancement of education".

The Christian Institute is a nondenominational Christian charity committed to upholding the truths of the Bible. We are supported by individuals and churches throughout the UK.

We believe that the Bible is the supreme authority for all of life and we hold to the inerrancy of Scripture. We are committed to upholding the sanctity of life from conception (

The Christian Institute is, in other words, a right-wing Christian political activist group akin to American groups such as Focus on the Family. Much of its energy in recent days has been spent in fostering discontent with court decisions in England that permit gay unions or adoption of children by gays. This is a group seeking to foster anti-gay sentiment for political ends.

The website avows the overt political intent of the organization. An FAQ section of the website notes that the organization pursues its ends through strategic briefings; conferences, recordings and books; media releases; influence of public policy; and assistance provided to individuals facing discrimination because of their faith. Among the latter is Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington who has refused to perform same-sex union ceremonies on religious grounds, though performing these ceremonies is part of her job description.

I’m apparently not the only person raising critical questions about the methodology of recent ComRes polls conducted on behalf of the Christian Institute. On 21 May, a blogger with the username Manic posted at, noting that a recent Christian Institute-ComRes poll on abortion needed to be examined from the standpoint of the size of the sample polled (in this case, 1014 people), (b) the wording of questions asked, and the interpretation and presentation of data Manic subjects the Christian Institute’s presentation of the poll results re: this particular issue to a scathing analysis.

Another blogger, Susan Russell at Walking with Integrity, notes today that her group had conducted its own informal survey in Canterbury after the ComRes results were released, and had found that of 21 random folks wandering the streets, three out of four did not believe being gay should be a bar to ordination, and a significant percentage believed the church would benefit from being more inclusive (

Russell also subjects to critical analysis the notion that polls representing majority viewpoints necessarily lead to sound moral conclusions. As she notes, if a survey about the justifiability of segregation had been done in Topeka, Kansas, in the 1950s, it’s highly unlikely that a majority of Topeka residents would have found segregation anything other than morally justifiable. Russell concludes, “I do not remember ‘Blessed are you who have complied with the will of the majority to exclude the minority’ in any of the Beatitudes.”

Indeed. Now that the results of this poll have hit the mainstream media, I have no doubt that it will accomplish its purpose, which is to suggest that a majority of Christians, even in nations that now afford extensive rights to gay citizens, condemn homosexuality.

I also doubt that, as the poll results are used, they will be subjected to careful critical analysis.

More’s the pity. I’d surely like to know more about this particular poll and why a report of it seems impossible to find today on the ComRes website. I'd also be very interested to know more about any financial connections the Christian Institute might have to similar right-wing "Christian" political activist groups in the U.S.

In Memoriam

I've spent a good bit of the weekend, and of today, working on a post that reflects further on the men who rule us--to be specific, on the hows and wherefores by which powerful men collude today to consolidate their rule of Christian institutions, and to weed out alternative voices.

My posting reflects on my own experience as a theologian working in church-affiliated colleges, in which pastoral leaders of a number of churches continue to join together to violate the human rights of LGBT persons, and of those of us who speak out against such violation of human rights. I had intended to tell more of my own story, to illustrate how bishops of one church are quite willing to join hands with bishops of another church, when it comes to assuring that the clerical systems of all churches continue to be dominated by men who present themselves as straight.

But before I could post today, we received word early today that Steve's father died this morning.

And so I have decided not to upload the post I had prepared, refraining from doing so as a statement of mourning. In the wake of such an event, words seem weak and tawdry.

Steve's father stood, throughout his life, in such sharp contrast to the powerful men of the world, who are willing to do anything to secure their power--and the women who all too often do their bidding. He was a man of great patience and humility, always seeking the way of peace in family disputes, never lording it over others.

When some of his children (including Steve) made life choices that did not appear to correspond to their traditional Catholic upbringing, his father was never censorious. As he once told Steve and me, after Steve told him he was gay, he thought through the issue in silence for a day, made up his mind, and then never revisited his decision again.

His decision was to love, accept, and support. While some of Steve's hyper-orthodox siblings have refused for years to affirm or welcome us--and while they treat another gay sibling the same way--Steve's parents simply began to visit us yearly, if we weren't able to visit them. And sometimes we did not visit them, because the stress and pain of the divisions caused by religion among Steve's siblings were simply too much to endure . . . .

I grew up in a world of men who were frequently either weak or violent, or both. Women ruled the roost in the matriarchal society in which I grew up. The men closest to me when I was a child often frightened me, because they were volatile, and their propensity to drink and then engage in shows of liquor-fueled manliness made the drinking doubly frightening. Those who did not drink and act out were often taciturn, causing me to seek the company of the female members of the family, who could at least be counted on to tell stories, teach, give orders, do something other than sit in scary brooding silence.

Steve's father was refreshing to me, when I first met him, because he was a man of great physical and mental strength, who was simultaneously gentle and pacific. I did not know what to make of such a man. He was not at all like the men I had known as a child.

Along with Steve's mother, Steve's father lived his faith in a non-showy way, praying constantly, attending church faithfully, loving, hoping, enduring. I never once heard him pass judgment on those whose lives did not conform to hyper-orthodox moral strictures. As he told Steve and me not too many months ago, if some of his children knew some of the couples he and Steve's mother met as they traveled around the upper Midwest to attend dance gatherings, they'd be horrified. They knew and liked couples who lived "in sin," who were not married or divorced and remarried.

And they did not presume to judge. At family gatherings at which the presence of openly gay family members posed problems for some other family members, Steve's father was always quietly inclusive, choosing one of the outcasts to dance with or sit with.

Of such is the kingdom of heaven. Knowing Steve's father for almost four decades now has been a tremendous gift to me. I pray that he rest in peace and that abundant blessings be with my other family during this time of mourning.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Men Who Rule Us: Collusion of Male Church Leaders in Protecting Male Power and Privilege

Today is Steve’s birthday, and so a day chopped up with preparations for a small party this evening. Fortunately, I had enough steam in me to bake his cake yesterday—a chocolate torte I invented for his 40th birthday, now nearly two decades ago, which has become his customary birthday cake each year. It’s sitting in the middle of the table looking handsome, if I say so myself, with fresh raspberries—a fruit he loves, since he grew up with it—piled in the center where the cake sinks as it cools, topped by a few pecan halves.

Time has been at a premium the last two days, as we traveled back from seeing his family—a difficult trip, because Steve’s father is very seriously ill now. And on our return, I found an elderly family member of mine had died (a first cousin of my mother), so a good bit of yesterday was occupied with visiting relatives, talking over shared memories and old times, making promises to see each other more often than at funerals—promises none of us ever seem to fulfill.

My blog thoughts are scattered today, due to the birthday preparations, the visitation last evening, the figs that seem intent on coming ripe each year at the hottest time of summer, when no one feels energetic about picking them, the glut of wonderful local produce (tomatoes, cantaloupes, crowder peas, okra, cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, pole beans, watermelons, peaches, corn, butterbeans, and on and on) that demands to be bought/picked/cooked/blanched/frozen/turned to soup these days.

As I cooked this morning, sweat pouring down my face in the hot kitchen, I wondered how the women in my family and the women of other families who cooked for my family managed it. It’s intense. All the best produce ripens at once, and at the time of year in which it is least pleasant to be near a stove. No wonder my father’s mother and my mother’s oldest sister, who usually cooked for my maternal grandmother, cooked the entire day’s food early in the day, before it was too hot.

Dinner sat on the stove from breakfast time until dinner was eaten at noon. Then the leftovers of dinner sat again on the stovetop for anyone with appetite enough to eat them lukewarm at suppertime. What didn’t get eaten was very likely to reappear again in a day or so as delicious vegetable soup full of all the fresh vegetables that had been cooked a day or so before.

If the church constituted by each family—the house church—is the body of Christ, every bit as much as is the church in its entirety, then the women who have historically cooked daily meals for their families are every bit as much priests as are those who stand at the altar on Sundays. The claim to fame of ordained priests (in the Catholic church, at least) is that that they and they alone can “confect” the sacrament—can “make” Jesus for the rest of the church, by consecrating the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

I’d like to know what women who have for generations labored so hard to cook meals for their families are doing, if not confecting the body of Christ in their own households? The church stays alive through the daily, unacknowledged, loving but laborious work of millions and millions of female hands, making Christ present at their tables, building the household church, the body of Christ, by transmuting the raw elements of the table into savory meals. In refusing to ordain women to the “official” priesthood, the church turns a blind eye to one of the most elemental realities of the life of the body of Christ: the way in which women function as priests at their own family tables, century after century.

These reflections are obviously pitched against the previous days’ meditations on clericalism. I continue to think, these days, about the issues of power and control that are so neuralgic today for the ordained, predominantly male clergy of the Christian churches—of how power and control seems to trump the other considerations of the gospel that are so much more central, such as doing justice, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with God.

I sometimes think that those reading this blog may wonder at my constant insistence that the emphasis on power and control within the pastoral leaders of one church bleeds over into other Christian churches. I wonder, that is, whether some readers of this blog may think I am reaching, when I attempt to point out parallels and overlaps between the concern of pastoral leaders in one church to maintain their dominance, and the similar concern of pastoral leaders in another church. Are there truly discernible interconnections today between, say, the stolid determination of many United Methodist bishops to hold the line against openly gay clergy, the insistence of many Anglican clerics that the priesthood must be closed to openly gay candidates and the episcopacy locked away from grasping women, and the certainty of the Vatican that ordaining women or affirming openly gay Christians would sever our ties to apostolic tradition?

I’m convinced there are such interconnections. How otherwise to make sense of the fact that Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Evangelization, recently felt free to inform his Anglican brethren gathered at the Lambeth Conference, that Anglicans acting independently of the Vatican in ordaining women bishops and gay clergy are suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s disease? Since Dias rows for another team, one is hard put to understand his willingness to put his oar into Anglican debates, unless there is some strong presumption among the men ruling the churches that they have a shared interest—one transcending denominational boundary lines—in maintaining the order, their order, without which they imagine the churches cannot continue to function.

Orthodox patriarchs have made similar rumblings about the Anglican departure from “the” tradition that dictates all male, all heterosexual (at least, ostensibly heterosexual) clergy for all churches, per omnia saecula saeculorum. This is astonishing in some ways, this confidence of the rulers of one communion that they have an unquestioned right to meddle in the internal affairs of another communion, when it comes to preserving the hegemony of men, straight (-identified) men, in the priesthood.

It’s as if all other issues pale in comparison to this one—issues such as how to understand the Eucharist, the nature of the church, the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. In the minds of the men who rule the church today, the church stands on one foundation alone: continuation of the domination of clerical life by straight-identified men. Astonishing, given that the gospels show no concern at all for this “doctrine,” and that Jesus never utters a word about the male-female divide on which contemporary Christians are willing to hinge the very future of the church.

Dias belongs to a church that, after all, has chosen to declare Anglican orders invalid, on the basis of assumptions that the Church of England has broken apostolic succession. Given this theological approach to Anglican clerical life—one that invalidates all Anglican ordination from the outset—why would the Vatican even think it necessary to try to involve itself in warning Anglicans that making women bishops and ordaining (openly) gay priests is going to drive a wedge between Rome and Canterbury?

The why is obvious. Nothing counts more, in the minds of the men ruling the churches today, than the unbroken tradition—their tradition—of (ostensibly) heterosexual male rule of the churches. Their rule.

+ + + + +

Before I close this posting, I did want to take quick notice of two news stories that have picked up recently on themes I’ve explored in previous postings. One of these is the story of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s burial with his lifelong friend Ambrose St. John. As I noted several days ago (, it was Newman’s express wish that he be buried in the same grave as that of St. John. When Newman died, his wish was honored.

As my blog posting also noted, when announcements came down recently that Newman was to be disinterred and reburied, I suspected that St. John would not be accompanying him. In other words, I had the sinking certainty when I read the announcement that Newman’s express final wishes would be disregarded when his body was exhumed and reburied.

And so it is coming to pass. Recent reports demonstrate that the push to have Newman parted from St. John in a new burial place is coming from the Vatican itself—the same Vatican that has been slow to consider Newman for canonization precisely because of persistent rumors, from his own lifetime up to the present, that Newman was gay (

And not all Catholics in England are looking favorably on this decision to violate Cardinal Newman’s final wishes. As well they shouldn’t. What is more sacrosanct than the burial wishes people express in their last wills and testaments, or other documents dictating those wishes?

Ironically, the determination to remove Newman from St. John now, as his canonization cause proceeds, only underscores the nature of their relationship—a relationship that, even though there is every reason to believe it was a chaste one, would nonetheless have caused both men to be denied entrance to the seminary today. My own hope is that the opening of Newman’s grave and the violation of his final wishes will have some unforeseen consequences that will ultimately result in a more compassionate approach to gay human beings on the part of Rome.

Since I have blogged repeatedly about the murder of Larry King in Oxnard, California, in February this year, I’d like to note that this week’s Newsweek cover story has to do with Larry King and bullying of gay youth in American schools ( As do many commentators within the LGBT community, I find the Newsweek article deeply flawed. It emphasizes Larry King’s gender-transgressive behavior far more than it does the even more troubling interest of his murderer in Nazi history. It fails to note the ways in which straight-identifying males in our society still far too often have the unquestioned right to bully, and even assault, both females and males they identify as feminine.

It is good that what happened to Larry King continues to receive attention. It is not good that our society still too often gives some males, straight-identified ones, the unquestioned right to bully and do harm to others. And above all, it is not good that our school systems seem incapable of eradicating or preventing such gender-biased violence. We have a long, long way to go. And the men ruling the churches aren’t going to get us there, obviously. They’re spending too much time defending their power and privilege to bother with questions like how to stop schoolchildren from murdering each other.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Clericalism: A Response to Alipius

*Alipius, I apologize for the tardy reply. I was traveling yesterday, and had no opportunity to think about or compose a reply adequate to your comment, until I returned home today.

In my view, your response perfectly illustrates the dynamic I am trying to address--the dynamic of clericalism that is causing intense suffering to many of the people of God.

I do not know you personally, and would never dream of calling you sleazy or pseudo-humble. I can, however, read your profile on blogspot.

From it, I learn you are a cleric studying for the priesthood in Rome.

I, by contrast, am a layperson living far from the "center" of the church and its structures of power.

It seems self-evident to me that you have far more invested than I do in the clerical system that finds its center in Rome. For that reason, I can understand your defensive and ungracious response to what I wrote.

What I do not understand is the inability of those occupying the center--the throne; the halls of power--to see the damage being done to the church today, by our continued investment in clericalism.

From where many of us live on the margins, far from the centers of power, with no real institutional power to change anything, the church definitely is dying. It is suffering tremendously from the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and what that shows us regarding the rottenness of the system of clericalism.

Perhaps you are correct when you say that the church is not dying--but only if "the church" means your church. The church in which the rest of us live, those of us far from the centers of power and privilege, with little ability to effect change, is in serious trouble.

And as that trouble continues to unfold, we find it absolutely incredible that those occupying the centers of power quibble over lace, ermine, and red silk trains--or that those occupying the centers of power would imagine that adopting higher miters and longer trains would presume that these vain shows might distract us from the reality we see plainly in front of us.

It is, after all, our church, too, though we have been reduced to powerlessness by the clerical system. And we speak critically out of love for the church that is being stolen from us, right before our eyes. Longer scarlet trains simply will not do what needs to be done to make the church an effective sacramental presence in the 21st century.

What might help is if those in the center--in Rome, in the clerical state--would listen carefully to the voices from the margins, and would refrain from name-calling when we seek to speak the truth that we see from where we have been placed. Thank you for listening, and for your interest in this blog.

*I have just posted the preceding reply to a blogger who kindly responded to my posting of two days ago--to my first post-World Youth Day letter to Pope Benedict XVI. Since my response to this blog reader clarifies points I have made in the last two days, I have chosen to make my reply to Alipius's comments the theme of today's posting.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Letter to Pope Benedict, After World Youth Day (#2)

Dear Brother Benedict,

Me again.

As I said yesterday, I am one small voice among millions to which you are obliged to listen as shepherd of a worldwide flock. I should also note that I am a failed theologian—one whose voice has been deliberately excluded by structures that you helped set into place in the church following Vatican II.

For that reason, you may simply choose not to listen to me. Those sitting in places of power do often choose to ignore the powerless. What can we do to change things, after all, given our lack of power?: this is what dispossession is—the relegation of people to social locations in which they become objects, rather than subjects, of those who seek to control the unfolding of history.

Even so, I choose to continue speak out, doing so from where I have been placed, while knowing full well how unlikely it is that my voice will reach the halls of power in which you and your brother bishops move. I am emboldened to speak because there are many others in the shadows with me, who, I have become convinced, deserve to be heard.

I know many of these shadow people. They are good people. They have not merited the place of nothingness to which they have been relegated. They have good gifts, abundant ones, to offer church and society—to the communities that exclude them.

If I have been given any gift at all, it is perhaps the gift to listen and record what I hear. If my letter reaches you, please keep in mind that I speak not only for myself—I truly do not count—but for many good people I encounter in the shadow world to which the church has consigned me.

And perhaps in the final analysis, since we believe that rocks can shout the praises of God, even the voices of those in the shadows have something of importance to say to the leaders of the church today. After all, decisions that you and others who wield tremendous power make daily affect us—even more than you may realize. It seems only just that the voices of those affected by decisions made by the powermakers of the world have a hearing, an opportunity to articulate how the decisions of the powerful affect our lives.

Yesterday, I noted that, from where I have been placed, it seems more and more apparent that the future of the church is being mortgaged to the system of clericalism. I do not know how to state this more plainly: the leaders of our church (and of other churches) are staking the very future of the church on the maintenance of a system of governance that is not essential to the constitution of the church. And that system incorporates a sexist bias, such that the decision to keep it alive is also a decision to hinge the future of the church on the domination of persons of one gender by those of another gender.

In the process, from where I have been placed, it seems increasingly obvious that the future of the church—including its ability to negotiate the difficult passage of postmodernity as the 21st century begins—is being placed in peril, and that it is being placed in peril precisely to maintain an ecclesial polity that has developed over time, has changed in the past, and can be changed now, if this system no longer serves the needs of the church well.

In today’s letter, I would like to reflect further on this theme.

You were at the second Vatican council. I do not need to tell you what happened there. It would be presumptuous for me to do so. You played a leading role, in fact, in convincing the fathers gathered in that ecumenical council to revive the ancient biblical and patristic ecclesiology of the people of God.

As you well know, the central thrust of Vatican II was to recover an ecclesiology that predates that of the reactionary post-Reformation church, with its heavy emphasis on those who rule and those who are ruled—the church as perfect society, to use Cardinal Bellarmine’s phrase, which is perfect precisely because it comprises a monarch and those the monarch rules.

Vatican II sought to retrieve a more ancient ecclesiology, the biblical and patristic ecclesiology of the church as the pilgrim people of God. I am confident that you yourself value this ecclesiology, since you love the theology of St. Augustine, as I do, and Augustine’s view of the church is deeply imbued with the image of the pilgrim people of God seeking the reign of God at the end of history.

I wonder, Brother Benedict, if you shared the hope so many of us in the church had, when Vatican II reframed our understanding of the church in a way that emphasized how the Spirit dwells in all of us, from top to bottom of the church. I imagine that you felt the same Spirit-inspired excitement many of us felt when Vatican II reminded us that the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in a world in which God is active always and everywhere to call the entire cosmos to salvation.

This ecclesiology allowed us to break out of the defensive, world-combating ghetto in which we had placed ourselves following the Reformation and in the difficult period in which modernity seemed to be a concerted attack on religious belief. By retrieving the image of the church as the pilgrim people of God, we were able to realign the church in its relationship to the world, so that the church could once again participate fruitfully in discussions in the public square, offering its gifts without trying to coerce society to adopt one particular religious position. We were able to realign the church to permit it to benefit from the movement of the Spirit in the culture at large.

But then something happened. The hope vanished. Things have become very sour in recent decades. In fact, they became sour quickly, as it became apparent to those ruling the church that the realignment implied by Vatican II’s ecclesiology would inevitably touch on what many clerics wished to see as untouchable: the clerical system itself.

From where I stand, it seems as if the entire enterprise of Vatican II was simply shut down. And—please forgive me for noting this—it also seems as if you yourself played a key role in the process of shutting that process down. In fact, in key respects, Brother Benedict, in the office you occupied before your election to the papacy, you worked very hard to “restore” a church that had presumably been eroded and fragmented by the very ecumenical council you had previously supported!

I am certainly not wise enough to understand all the reasons for the retrenchment that has gone on from the pontificate of your predecessor up to your own pontificate. What I can see clearly, however—again, from the shadows to which I have been relegated—is that the neuralgic issue in this retrenchment is the clerical system. As long as the ecclesiology of Vatican II represented a frothy new approach to church and world that changed nothing in any essential way within the governing structures of the church, the council was tolerated.

The moment that the new ecclesiology pointed to a renegotiation of the clerical system itself—of the power and privilege attendant on clerical status—the project of Vatican II ground immediately to a halt. Then, we were told that Vatican II had been a utopian dream, a moment of awkward fantasy in which people suddenly went wild with bizarre experiments designed to reshape the church. We were told that the pendulum had swung so wildly in the direction of change that we had lost all contact with “the” tradition—and that we needed a reassertion of the magisterium, even a theology of creeping infallibilism that sought to make almost any utterance of the Holy Father sacrosanct.

We are now being told by Vatican spokespersons that to ask if you wear Prada slippers, Brother Benedict, is blasphemous. As if the pope has now become divine.

As a theologian, this must strike you as very anti-traditional, this divinization of the pope. As a theologian, you must wonder about the use of the term “blasphemy”—a term applied exclusively to slighting statements about God—to refer to valid critiques of the papacy. As a theologian, I am sure you are alarmed, as I am, at the idolatry implicit in this spurious use of the term “blasphemy” to deflect questions about the pope’s attire, in an age in which you yourself have made constant changing of liturgical and ecclesiastical garb a central preoccupation of the church’s rulers.

And, if I may be so bold, does it not seem significant to you, Brother Benedict, that the rituals and symbols—including clerical fashions—being retrieved today all just happen to center on the clerical role? Does it not seem strangely significant that all the fashions we are retrieving—the higher and higher miter, the longer and longer cappa magna train—are all, in some ways, assertions of clerical power and privilege? Whose miter stands higher than anyone else’s? Who has the bigger cappa magna train?

In the retrieval of “the” tradition going on in recent years, it seems to many of us in the shadows that what is being retrieved is rather strangely centered on the traditional claim of the cleric to have higher status in the church, the right to rule others, the prerogative to mediate salvation to the rest of us. Those of us in the shadows find ourselves perplexed as we watch enervating battles around issues of power and control in which those fighting the battles claim that they are preserving the tradition, when it seems that what they are really preserving is the power and privilege of the clerical state. To many of us watching from the shadows, it seems that so many of the skirmishes mounted from the center of the church in recent years have been about phallic power—whose is bigger, taller, better, and who is therefore entitled to rule. It seems to many of us that these battles are being fought for a sole purpose: to enable clerics to continue equatting the church with themselves.

The purported battle over Catholic identity in American Catholic universities, for instance, has seemed to many of us to be far more about questions of who owns theology (and moral theology, in particular), than about Catholic identity. The claim that Catholic identity is waning goes hand in hand with the sociological phenomenon of waning clerical (and religious) presence in the faculties and governing sectors of Catholic universities.

It is clearly not Catholic identity that has waned after Vatican II. It is the controlling clerical presence in Catholic institutions that is waning. And the future of the church is being sacrificed to the myth that the church will stand only if the clerical system is preserved and reasserted at all cost—even, it seems, at the cost of extinguishing the Spirit among the faithful called to serve the church in manifold ways through the gifts the Spirit chooses to give them.

The upshot is dismal. Those attacking Vatican II have talked long and hard about the decline in Catholic identity and catechetical knowledge among Catholics in the global North. But have you read, Brother Benedict, any of the insipid, banal, ultimately inaccurate catechetical treatises that are now being permitted to represent themselves as authentic presentations of the Catholic faith? If you do so, as a theologian or even an educated believer, I submit to you that you may be shocked: these presentations, which are circulated everywhere, in my country, at least, in no way represent the authentic Catholic tradition in all its complexity and vibrancy. They debase our faith, make it a matter of questions and answers that do not engage mind and heart in any profound way at all.

For those of us watching from the shadows, it seems that the more the church proclaims its return to the authentic tradition—the longer the cappa magna trains grow, the higher the miters become—the more the church becomes irrelevant. We see a church gradually folding in on itself and resuming the defensive posture of the post-Reformation period, acting as if the world is evil and dark and to be combated—as if the Spirit is not active in all of creation, in other world religions and other Christian churches.

It would be wrong of me to place the blame for this abdication of the project of Vatican II entirely at the feet of church leaders. Theologians—my brothers and sisters in the academy—also bear a strong responsibility for all that has taken place in recent years. We, too, have allowed this to happen, curbing our tongues and preferring our own job security rather than speaking forthrightly. Far too few of us have been willing to pay the price our vocation demands of us—a vocation that by its very nature calls on us to reflect critically on scripture and tradition in light of the contemporary moment, and to say what must be said, no matter how inconvenient the truth may be for us to tell it.

Above all, too few of us who are called to serve the church as theologians have been willing to make active solidarity with those who we can plainly see are the victims, the human fallout, of the restoration process. As the church bashes women and seeks to return them to their premodern roles, as it denies women the right to share in clerical power and privilege, as it cruelly turns its back on its gay and lesbian children, many of us who are called to serve the church as theologians are simply silent. We have facilitated the injustices of the false restorationist moment, even when we knew better. And we deserve to be judged harshly by future historians for doing so.

To make my point as clear as possible, Brother Benedict: is the return to the cappa magna and all that the long train entails symbolically really the future of the church? Is it the best future we can imagine? Is it the best future God is capable of setting before us? Is what the restorationist movement has now become—longer cappa magnas, higher miters, absurd "Catholic Answers" facilitating psychological, spiritual, and religious infantilism among the people of God—really what will enable us to bring the gospel message to the culture of postmodernity?

The distinguished gentleman pictured above with a fabulously long cappa magna (he's facing the altar with his back to the people of God; it would be impossible to display the long red cape otherwise) is Archbishop Burke.

You have just given the distinguished gentleman in the long scarlet cape a distinguished position in Rome. Since I live in a diocese geographically close to the one over which he formerly presided, I have watched this cleric in action for some time.

In all humility, but with plain honesty, I must say that I am troubled by your decision to reward this particular distinguished gentleman of the long cape, Brother Benedict. As the pastoral leader of St. Louis, Archbishop Burke seemed to many of us who live in the shadows to have anything but pastoral concern for his flock foremost in mind.

As a pastor, Archbishop Burke has often seemed, in fact, like a trigger-happy deputy sheriff with a gun, shooting wildly at every target that seemed the least bit threatening in his saloon.

When a pastoral leader behaves that way, is it wise to reward him by elevating him to the position of high sheriff and giving him a long rifle (to match his long train,) so that he can shoot even more wildly?

If the future of our church depends on rewarding such behavior, and on pretending that the person wearing the ever more imposing outfit is admirable simply because the outfit is stunning, will that future be bright, I wonder?