Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mid-Week News Roundup: Wafer Wars, Benedict and Fascism, Retrieving Femininity in Christ, Citizen Blogging

More news articles cropping up, which continue stories I’ve previously noticed on this blog.

Obama and Biden: Catholic Controversy

Catholic news sites are full of discussion of the effect Obama’s choice of Biden will have on American Catholics. As Rocco Palmo notes in a posting entitled “Hail Columbia . . . Hello Controversy” this past Sunday at his Whispers in the Loggia blogsite, it appears the choice of a pro-choice Catholic candidate for the vice-presidential slot will revive the “wafer wars” of the 2004 campaign—the enervating and unnecessary wafer wars (

As I have noted in previous postings here, in the 2004 elections some American Catholic bishops sought to use the Eucharist as a political weapon, to force their flocks to vote “right” ( These bishops maintained that a pro-choice Catholic political leader (and anyone publicly supporting her or him) should be denied communion.

Not all American Catholic bishops agreed, however. In fact, those issuing statements forbidding pro-choice politicians from receiving communion in their dioceses were significantly in the minority. In an article entitled “Biden Nomination Could Touch Off Episcopal Split” at the National Catholic Reporter website, John Allen surveys the controversy and its theological (and church-political) roots (

Even more interesting to me than Allen’s analysis is the blog commentary following this article. The large majority of those posting comments are solidly against the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon. As one anonymous poster states, “I do not feel the Eucharist should be used as a weapon for any reason. It is an insult to the Body and Blood of Jesus who came for everyone.”

Others, however, support the decision of a few bishops to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. A poster calling himself (or herself) Abe, engages in . . . interesting . . . “logic” to conclude that a Catholic who questions any church teaching is not a Catholic, and thus not entitled to the Eucharist. Abe lambasts those of us pleading with the bishops not to make the same mistaken this election cycle that they made in the past—letting the Eucharist be used as a political weapon—as grand-standers and sophists who want everybody to get “all Hands-Across-America-like and sing koom-by-ya and feel warm and fuzzy inside and light candles to pixies and sing Sarah McLauglin songs and dance around with silk scarves.”

Abe tells us to SCRAM (his caps). As an anonymous poster replies to Abe (sarcasm meter ticking high), “That sounds sooo much like something Jesus would have said.”

In my humble opinion, the response of posters like Abe illustrates precisely what a can of worms the bishops open, if they make the Eucharist a political weapon and a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior. They hand the church over to the worst among us, to those who don’t seem to have a clue about the core of Jesus’s message, which is inclusive love, welcome of all, an invitation of everyone to the table—where sinners have a special place.

Some day, historians and future generations of believers (assuming we permit a future) will look back and wonder at the willingness of church leaders to court those who deny the most essential Christian values in the name of an orthodoxy that betrays the richness of the Christian tradition. The pro-life values of those who call for the Eucharist to be denied to pro-choice politicians are, in just about every case I examine carefully, limited to life in the womb. If the crop of “pro-life” leaders these folks told us to elect in 2004 are authentically pro-life, I’ll eat my hat.

Brother Roger of Taizé: A Protestant-Catholic Communion Story

As I noted in my posting cited above, re: the use of the Eucharist as a political weapon, one of the very strong arguments undercutting the way some bishops and some Catholics want to use the Eucharist today as a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior is the choice of the present pope Benedict XVI to give communion to the Protestant prior of the Taizé movement Roger Schütz at the funeral of John Paul II. Benedict was then Cardinal Ratzinger; he had not yet been made pope.

The Clerical Whispers blogsite has a fascinating discussion of this topic today ( As this article notes, because Catholic law forbids Catholics to give communion to non-Catholics, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger—long regarded as the watchdog of Catholic orthodoxy, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—to give communion to Brother Roger raised eyebrows.

And even more eyebrows went up when it was revealed that Ratzinger was simply continuing a practice of John Paul II himself: the previous pope had given Brother Roger communion on a number of occasions. Well. As my elderly Polish friend Stanislaw often says when faced with a quandary requiring an inventive imagination, “What to do? What to do?”

Since it is very important for many right-wing Catholics to hold the hard line on the “use” of the Eucharist as a weapon/reward, this choice of a sitting pope and a future one to give the Eucharist to a non-Catholic is inconvenient, to say the least. These Catholics have therefore decided to spin a little myth about Brother Roger, that he secretly became Catholic before he died. Hence Benedict and John Paul II did not contravene canon law. Hence the use of the Eucharist as weapon/reward can be continued. (We Catholics have a venerable history of playing the "secret" card, when faced with inconvenient facts.)

Unfortunately, said myth is simply untrue. Brother Roger remained faithful to the Reformed tradition into which he was born, up to the day of his death—as his Taizé community also continues to do. But because the sheer fact of what Ratzinger and John Paul II did in the case of Brother Roger remains so inconvenient, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, is now seeking to develop a more sophisticated myth to “explain” the choice of Ratzinger and John Paul II to give the prior of Taizé communion.

As Kasper maintained in a recent interview (Clerical Whispers links to an English translation of the original published in L’Osservatore Romano—see, Brother Roger was both a Protestant and a Catholic when John Paul and Ratzinger gave him communion.

Stuff and nonsense. As a theologian, Kasper has to know better. If a prospective pope can give communion to a Protestant whose faith is “progressively enriched by the patrimony of faith of the Catholic Church” (Kasper’s phrase)—and in the highly symbolic venue of a papal funeral—and if a previous pope has set the precedent for this contravention of canon law, why may an “ordinary” priest or bishop not choose to give communion to a believer of another Christian communion whose faith has been enriched by the patrimony of Catholic faith? Or to a Catholic who, as with non-Catholics, accepts some magisterial teachings while questioning others?

I write about this topic with a certain pique for two reasons. The first is that I find it highly offensive to use the Eucharist as a political weapon or as a reward for good (submissive, conscience-denying) behavior.

But the second has to do with something that has happened in the life of my brother’s family. Several years ago, when the priest in his parish began to preach homilies that challenged parishioners to form their political conscience around church teaching (and these homilies were construed as critical of the current presidential regime), the priest found himself booted from the parish. The ostensible reason for the booting? Some parishioners offended by the “politicization” of the gospel reported having seen him give communion to non-Catholic family members at the funeral of their deceased relative.

Since that time, my brother and his family no longer go to church. The action of the bishop split the parish, so that nearly half of the parish has left. Petitions by significant numbers of parishioners to reinstated their pastor were ineffective. As my youngest nephew Patrick put it (more crudely than I’d ever say), while some priests diddle minors, church authorities go after a priest who gives communion?

Benedict vs. Fascism: Update on Controversy re: the Berlusconi Government

And as long as I am recounting Catholic news, I’d like to make brief note of another story about which I have previous blogged a number of times. This is the story of the connection of the Vatican to Italy’s current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In the 15 August posting from this blog cited above, I speak of “the fascist tendency that runs always just beneath the surface of Catholicism.” In several postings at the beginning of this year, I expressed my strong reservations about the apparent alliance the Vatican had made with the Berlusconi government, around “family values” (, In a later posting, I noted the patent shortcomings of Berlusconi’s own family-values track record, after Benedict chose to be photographed with Berlusconi

As my postings indicate, I strongly fear that, in allying itself with political currents that use the family issue to try to hold together center-right and right-wing alliances, the church will end up being implicated in fascism—as it was in the first half of the 20th century. Because I am concerned about this possibility, I am happy to note that some recent indicators appear to indicate that the Vatican is perhaps raising the same questions I’ve raised about Berlusconi’s government.

Recently, the best-selling Catholic weekly newspaper in Italy, Famiglia Cristiana, published an editorial warning that Italy was in danger of returning to fascism under the Berlusconi government. The paper, which is owned by the Paulist fathers, pointed in particular to the xenophobia and racism that the current government’s policies towards groups like the Gypsies seemed to be eliciting.

Immediately, the Italian government went on the offensive, and the Vatican issued a statement appearing to distance itself from Famiglia Cristiana. But the story didn’t end there: this past Sunday, in his Angelus prayer at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict noted the importance for Christians to help society to "overcome any temptation of racism, intolerance and exclusion, and to organize themselves with options that respected the dignity of human beings" (see, which documents the entire controversy leading up to the Angelus remarks).

Because these remarks come right on the heels of the Famiglia Cristiana controversy, many political and religious observers have read them as the pope weighing in on that controversy—and against a Vatican alliance with the Berlusconi government whose price would be looking the other way as fascism reasserts itself. I hope those observers are correct.

Helping Women Retrieve Their Femininity in Christ

As blog readers know, I am highly skeptical of the male-female complementarity argument increasingly used by Christian churches today across the board to frame sexual ethics (and worldviews with significant political implications that support male domination and female subordination) (,, Though many churches are building elaborate theological systems on the assumption of a male-female complementarity they see as central to the bible, and have elevated the concept of male-female complementarity to the level of a church-sustaining and church-dividing issue, I don’t find a scrap of evidence to suggest that maintaining such complementarity was an overwhelming concern of Jesus or of the Jewish tradition in which he was grounded.

This being the case, I’m interested to learn that the notorious “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International has just announced a ministry to help women (clearly, given the organization’s goals, women questioning their sexual orientation) to “embrace their . . . God-given femininity” and “journey towards wholeness in their femininity in Christ.” I’m grateful to the blog Good as You for bringing this important initiative to my attention—see, linking to

Hmmm. I’ve read and re-read the Christian scriptures, and don’t recall ever having come across the phrase “femininity in Christ” (or its counterpart “masculinity in Christ”). I’d surely be happy to see some scriptural reference to this phrase, on which whole ministries and the theology of many churches today are implicitly relying. And, given the importance being placed on male-female complementarity in churches across the board, I’d dearly love to see some reference to Jesus’s overwhelming interest in this subject.

The Increasing Importance of Citizen Bloggers in Our Democratic Society

A remark Arianna Huffington makes today in her Huffington Post assessment of the role played by bloggers at the current Democratic National Convention has me thinking ( Huffington notes that in the 2004 election, Huffington Post did not exist. Nor did YouTube.

When one puts those facts in context—in the context of the increasing predominance of citizen blogging in our political process—the implications are enormous. It begins to make sense why so many of those who want to control the process—by controlling the flow of information, what may and may not be said—are so frightened of the new world of citizen blogging.

It also begins to make sense to me why groups historically concerned with the transmission of information—e.g., the media, churches, schools, colleges and universities—are far behind the learning curve, if they have not yet recognized the importance of citizen blogging in their information-transmitting initiatives. As I have noted in numerous postings on this blog, in my view, the shift to citizen blogging as a way of transmitting and dissecting the news holds great promise for a democratic society.
The mainstream media have simply stopped doing their job. In my view, they are no longer doing it well enough to sustain our democratic society. As quite a few blog commentaries on mainstream media coverage of the current DNC are noting, in televised coverage of our election process, we increasingly have to put up with red-faced, belligerent talking heads shouting sports metaphors across tables at each other (see, e.g.,

Because I am not edified by that kind of “news” coverage, I am just saying no to televised coverage of the convention. And I’m highly dubious of the print coverage I do read daily online. When I compare a video clip of a convention speech with the “official” presentation given to that speech in the mainstream print media, I’m shocked at the disparity between what I see and hear and what I’m told I should have seen and heard.

Having direct access to all kinds of media clips, as well as on-the-spot analysis and reporting of the news by citizen bloggers, gives me a much wider range of information than I could ever get through the managed outlets of television or print media. It also allows me perspectives (and stories) I would never run across in our official news outlets.

As an educator, as a theologian, I am baffled that so few academic institutions have begun to recognize the power of citizen blogging as a tool for teaching, facilitating dialogue, and transmitting information. I am baffled, and yet I understand the reluctance of university administrators who have bought into the corporate-managerial model of running their schools to encourage faculty to teach and do research by means of blogging: putting ideas and opinions out there for everyone to read will inevitably ruffle the feathers of some funders who want “their” universities to toe their political line in order to keep on receiving funding. In the minds of all too many university presidents, the boundaries of academic freedom end where funding pressures begin.

But at what a price that funding is bought, when blogging can so effectively transmit ideas and information today, and catch others up in that dialogic process of critical reflection that we keep saying is essential to education—not to mention our political process . . . .


butterfly said...

Bill, you've certainly commented about a lot here. First, the "wafer wars" with the Dems VP candidate the Catholic Biden who is "pro-choice" is of great interest here. John L. Allen's article which you make mention of here I thought was rather interesting. Interesting in the sense that he seems to create animosity rather than quell any animosity. I am not sure what to really make of his tone and perhaps you could comment on that.


William D. Lindsey said...

Hi, Butterfly, it's good to hear from you. I do have some reflections about John Allen's coverage of Catholic news in general.

And I want to try to be as measured as possible in what I say, so I apologize in advance if my response is lengthy.

Because the Vatican is a closed society--in some ways, the ultimate old boys' club--it won't let just anyone inside. John Allen has been skilled about gaining access, and that's good. We need to hear the inside story as much as anyone on the inside will ever tell it.

But, in my view--as a theologian shoved far to the margins--that insider's status has given John Allen something of an insider's perspective. And that's where I grow impatient with his coverage of Catholic news.

I find John Allen bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to the hierarchy, and often oversimplifying complex theological points. I doubt he'd continue to have the open door in Rome if he didn't behave that way.

But for me, this mars his reporting. I was especially unhappy several years ago (and I wrote NCR to tell them this) when he (to my mind) soft-pedaled the announcement from Rome that they were going to mount a witch hunt for gays in the seminaries.

I was not alone in being appalled at how Allen presented this witch hunt in a NY Times. I remember Paul Lakeland, a highly regarded lay theologian, and some major figures of organizations of American religious, writing letters to the Times to protest Allen's treatment of the Roman initiative.

As a marginalized theologian and an openly gay one, I find Allen's insider's perspective not really congenial, not one that interests me a lot, even as I know I need to pay attention to the information he gathers on the inside. My own soul is fed by reports coming from others on the margins, though--from women, survivors of clerical sexual abuse, all those shoved to the margins.

I should add that I am also generally unhappy with how the mainstream media handle "the" Catholic voice. Almost always, they call on the same handful of commentators: John Allen, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Deal Hudson.

Allen is far and away the best of the lot. Among the others, there are deep, compromising ties to richly funded right-wing thing tanks. Hudson is an outright political operative whose attempt to depict himself as "the" voice of American Catholicism in this election has been challenged by Catholics United for the Common Good.

These men do NOT represent "the" voice of American Catholicism. That being the case, why do the media not balance their coverage of things Catholic by calling on the likes of Joan Chittester, Tom Gumbleton, Tom Doyle, Helen Prejean, and a score of alternative voices to explain "the" Catholic position?

It's because of who owns and controls the media, in the final analysis--and thus, who benefits by keeping "the" Catholic voice in a tight little right-wing cage.

butterfly said...

Thanks Bill for you very comprehensive reply to mine. John L Allen has my respect for a lot of reasons, but he is definitely playing ball on the other side of the court so to speak. Hence, it is for such reasons as you describe that we have such concepts like "wafer wars."

I think that if Biden is asked by a Bishop to not receive Communion in their State that Biden might perhaps consider visiting other Churches, and showing that God is much bigger than any Bishop or any one Church. What do you think of that?

It is interesting that while the right wing always complains about fair reporting, they don't seem to understand how unfair their reporting has been, and way too biased on certain issues. The amazing thing is that the Holy Spirit comes and goes where it will Bill, and they have no control over the light that is surely going to swallow up the darkness. This is where faith leads me to believe. This is where my hope is.

God bless you Bill. You are a good shepherd.

William D. Lindsey said...

Butterfly, I think that's a great idea--for Catholics who feel pushed from their own church (long-term or temporarily) to demonstrate their belief that God is not confined to one church (or religious tradition) by worshiping elsewhere.

It's sort of where I have ended up in my own life, accepting the hospitality that other communities offer me at one time or another, while I find myself alienated from my own communion.

In a way, isn't what John Paul II and Ratzinger acknowledged by giving communion to Brother Roger that God is bigger than the confessional lines we draw? This action is not just the Catholic church giving to Roger Schutz. It's also the Catholic church receiving from him. As Vatican II noted, the Spirit is active in Christian churches beyond the Catholic church.

Thanks for your kind words. Not much of a shepherd here. Just a sheep trying to find hear where the Shepherd calls and leads.

butterfly said...

Hi Bill - I noticed on NCRcafe today that Thomas is narrowing the discussion of Obama and his stance on pro-choice to something that makes him out to be a heartless person. That is not my sense of Obama at all. It seems that John L Allen's recent article of Biden as VP has watered down the entire political process in the US to this one issue again: abortion. Allen does not seem to understand the huge headache that the fundamentalist have is profusely bestowed upon their political opponents. John L Allen is responsible for starting these wafer wars again in the way that he has presented Joseph Biden in his article so narrowly and so prejudiciously.

I have a headache.

colkoch said...

Bill, I've got a lot of catching up to do with your blog, but I wanted to comment on this particular article.

The reception of communion by Brother Roger is probably more important than it would look like on the surface. Hence Cardinal Kasper's pathetic attempts to justify it canonically. The sad thing to me is where are there heads that they feel it's more important to justify communion canonically than scripturally.

This is a huge sign that the Pharisees have taken control. Maybe we need to take a real long look at Jewish history. How did they maintain continuity in the face of so many diverse interpretations of the law. Maybe what the Vatican needs to do is sanction a seperate Catholic practice for our version of the Pharisees, while leaving the rest of us alone in our 'secondary' status.

William D. Lindsey said...

Butterfly, thanks for bringing that NCR posting to my attention.

In my view, abortion has been used for too long by right-wing Catholic and evangelical Christians as a bludgeon tool, rather than a moral issue around which we can gather as we try to bring key values to the public square.

After all, the loud support these groups have given to one particular political party and its platform for some time now has yielded NO action on behalf of what they claim to value most of all--the life of the unborn.

And at the same time, there's abundant evidence that the people they keep telling us we must elect if we value live are not in the least sensitive to pro-life teaching in all its manifold forms.

To my way of thinking, there's a certain level of sinfulness in the willingness of church figures and their spokespersons to keep denying the anti-life records of those they encourage us to elect, and the lack of any will on the part of these leaders to eliminate abortion.

When the same old tool to bludgeon people into conformity fails to work, after it has been used time and time again, it's time for something new, I believe. It's time to think about these issues in new ways, which respect all life issues, and which try to prevent anyone being forced into the horrible moral dilemma of even having to wonder if abortion is the solution.

I am disappointed in neo-conservative political thinkers and their religious right allies, because they seem to lack the creativity one would expect to characterize folks so intent on faith. To keep saying the same thing, when the words produce no change: well, that's not creative. It's essentially stupid, and it implies that the people of God are simply too stupid to see the disconnect between what these "pro-life" politicians say, and what they do.

I have no doubt that the Deal Hudsons, George Weigels, Hugh McNichols, Pat Buchanans, Richard John Neuhauses and their allies on the NCR board will keep using that abortion thing as a weapon in this election. Whether they'll be as effective as they have been in the past in trying to coerce Catholics to vote only one way remains to be seen.

I'm not sure John Allen is really the one stirring up the wafer wars. It's more those Catholics on the right who want to use the church and its teaching (as they define it) in a fascist way, to make any open discussion of these issues impossible.

William D. Lindsey said...

You're right, Colleen. I think one of the thing that saddens me most about the "restorationist" period that began in JPII's papacy, and is still underway, is how it obliterates a whole generation of wonderful Catholic scripture scholarship, that had begun to ground people's perception of church teaching once again in scripture.

Just from listening to what many right-wing Catholics say on the NCR board, I observe an almost total ignorance of that significant body of good scriptural scholarship, which helped to produce Vatican II. It's hard to imagine that the door could have opened at Vatican II only to slam so decisively shut that it sent the church locked back inside that door far back from where it was when Vatican II took place.

But that seems to be what happened.

butterfly said...

Bill, thanks again for your input into this issue that confronts us once again in the election process. Colleen brings up a good point too about the Pharisees. I definitely see the Pharisees as trying to overrun the Church and limiting consciousness to their dictates and absolutist form of consciousness into the shallowness and shadows of understanding that limits the truth of Christ teachings into a box of untruths.

John L Allen's article seems to propel the wafer wars, as well as promotes it in the guise of reporting.