Tuesday, June 18, 2013


   We've all heard the "mantras," "I'm spiritual but not religious," and "I don't have a religion, I have a relationship with God."  Many Christians today are rejecting religion in favor of their own spirituality and faith.  But that presents a problem.  We cannot be spiritual or believe in a vacuum.  A valid Christian spirituality and faith must arise from a Christian faith tradition.  

  Our Christian faith puts us in a relationship with God by making us members of the People of God.  Our faith calls for us to join with others in a communion of love, and moves us to prophetically act, along with others of good will, for the good of others and the world.  In sum, our faith automatically puts us in a religious community.  So it seems to me that many believers are not rejecting religion, but are rejecting bad religion.  Similarly, just because some of our schools are bad, we don't reject education; we reject bad education.  And there's plenty of both to go around these days.

   I also believe that some of today's professed atheists are actually rejecting bad religion.

   Our spiritual seekers do make an important point.  There is a difference between faith, morality and spirituality on one hand, and religion on the other.  
         Our faith can be described as our individual and communal, loving, trusting "belongingness" with God, and includes what we believe.  Our  faith is based in God and centered in Jesus Christ.  
         Our morality can be described as our loving conformity with the Catholic code of conduct.
         Our spirituality arises from our personal relationship with God.  It includes our personal experience of God, along with our discernment of God's presence and intentions, our personal vocation, and our prophetic actions that move us and our society toward the ever conscious fullness of wholeness-in-love.  
         Our religion can be described as the way we organize, teach and present what we believe.  Today's Christian religion runs all the way from the Catholic and Protestant mainstream, to radical fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, to militants who want to impose their faith on our country, to storefront churches, to those who picket military funerals and harass gays.  Our Catholic religion includes the monarchical authority structure in which it is organized and presented.
   Our Catholic faith is essentially the same today as it was for the first Christians 2000 years ago.  Our Catholic religion, however, has changed drastically.  First century Catholicism (though  it wasn't called that) was very much a "people's religion."  Christians met in their homes for the Eucharistic meal, and they openly discussed and even debated what Christ meant to them.  One of the results was the four Gospels, in which the same faith was organized and written down from four different points of view.  And even before the Gospels were written, St. Paul changed Jesus' Jewish presentation of the faith, e.g., the Kingdom of God, into a presentation (religion) that suited his Gentile audiences, e.g., the Body of Christ.  Later, Christians changed Jesus' agricultural presentation of faith, e.g., mustard seeds, wheat and weeds, vineyards, shepherds and flocks, into a philosophical presentation, e.g., of God as the Supreme Being, and of the soul and body.  The whole idea was to create a religion that was as suitable, relevant and open as possible, so that the people could give the fullest and most meaningful expression to the one, Christian faith.  

   Through the centuries, as our understanding of our one, Catholic faith evolved and was clarified, it was also locked up in an authoritative structure and teachings that were increasingly removed from the people's everyday culture and experience, e.g., democracy, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, etc., and tightly guarded by the church's power elite.  In many ways, the Catholic religion became an obstacle to the one, living Catholic faith.  Vatican II tried to re-open the way to a timely, relevant, world-wide people's expression of our Catholic faith.  The council recognized that there are new, contemporary ways to understand the world and what it means to be human in today's world.  New ways were therefore needed to express our faith, e.g., ways that considered dialoguing with today's world, the role of the laity, and the dignity and role of women.  

   Actually, one way that Vatican II found these "new ways" was by going back and revisiting the old ways of the early "people's church."  The council "opened windows" but the power elite closed them.  And Catholics started to walk away from their increasingly irrelevant religion.  Sadly, many of them are walking very much alone.  Hopefully, they have not also walked away from their faith.

   Pope Francis has stirred some hope that our Catholic religion may once again become officially open to relevant, contemporary expressions of our faith.  If he succeeds in removing the obstructions (against what, at this moment, are heavy odds), we will see a great leap forward in elevating and healing today's church and today's world.  If he fails...well, let's pray that he doesn't fail.  



Monday, June 10, 2013


   "I am a scientist.  I know evolution and the biological laws of the universe.  Therefore, God does not exist."
   "I am a philosopher.  I know how to think deeply and logically.  Therefore, God does not exist."
   "I am a plumber.  I know how to fix leaky pipes.  Therefore, God does not exist."
   "I am a parent.  I know how to raise children.  Therefore, God does not exist."

   It is easy for us to be tempted to argue with the people who made these statements.  We could say, "You went from one area of expertise to another, without proof."  That only opens the door to an argument over proof.  But there is no proof to be had, either way.  For example, if I believe in God, I will say that science, shows me that God exists.  If I don't believe in God, then I will say that science shows me that God does not exist.  So we should resist the temptation to argue.

   The simple truth is that we either believe in God or we don't.  (Here, I'm going to say something not-nice:  Agnostics are just lazy; they should make up their minds.)  

   Using science as an example, let's look at our history as the Judeo-Christian People of God.  When we thought the world was flat and that the sun could stop in the sky, we believed in God.  When we found out that the world was round and wasn't the center of the universe, we believed in God.  When we learned, with Newton, that the world was mechanistic, we believed in God.  Now that we know that the world is made of evolving energy, we still believe in God.  If and when scientists give us a whole new view of the universe, we will still believe in God.

   Believing in God is sometimes easy, sometimes not.  Using experience as an example:  when we first woke up to who we are as humans, we believed in God.  When we were enslaved in Egypt, and then came through the Exodus to the Promised Land, we believed in God.  When we were taken into exile, we believed in God.  When Jesus was born, lived, preached, was crucified and rose from the dead, we believed in God.  When we Christians split apart and condemned one another, we still believed in God.  When the Catholic church took on the trappings of Roman Imperialism and Renaissance monarchy, we still believed in God.  When we Christians disgraced our faith and humanity by being anti-Semitic, and owning African slaves, we still believed in God.  Even the slaves believed in God!  When hell erupted upon our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, both they and we still believed in God.

   All this brings up the question:  when atheists say they don't believe in God, what image or idea of God do they have before them?  If, for example, they have an image or idea of God as Someone who is supposed to intervene and stop bad things from happening, then they need to correct their image or idea.  That's not the God we believe in.  The God we believe in lets the universe and the world act on their own through evolution, exactly as scientists understand the process of evolution.  The God we believe in lets biological processes act exactly as biologists understand those processes.  The God we believe in lets diseases, earthquakes and tsunamis occur that harm and kill plants, animals and people.  The God we believe in encourages and empowers us to move forward toward personal and global wholeness-in-love, while leaving us  free, either to love one another or to hate one another and fight wars.  This same God is the One who is All-powerful, All-knowing and All-loving.  In fact, it is God's ability to make us free to life well or ill that makes God All-powerful, All-knowing and All-loving. 

   Little wonder that St. Paul says that our faith is foolishness to the Gentiles. (1 Cor. 1:18-25).  Today, instead of saying, "Gentiles," we can say, "atheists."  For one thing, our foolishness puts us in what we believe to be good company, e.g., Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and her younger brother, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Mary, Paul and Phoebe and Priscilla, Origen, Monica and her son, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregor Mendel, Maimonides, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Martin Luther, George Fox, Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mother Theresa, and many others.  And I would like to add here, the science departments of our Catholic universities, where evolution and biology are taught.

   Yet, it seems that our atheist brothers and sisters must still believe that we are either behind the times, dumb or deceived--or all three.  So if, for example, any of them ever says to us, "Look, I can be a good person and do good things for others, without God," I suggest that we don't argue with them, but rather that we reply, "Good.  Now let's figure out how we can be good persons and do good things for others together."   


Monday, June 3, 2013


   The Archdiocese of Philadelphia just announced that more parish churches are being clustered together into new parishes.  Catholic numbers keep diminishing, and a spiritually effective Catholic presence in today's society and culture keeps diminishing.

   Philadelphia is a clear example of a church that spiritually is hopelessly behind the times.  It is still trying to operate according to the social model that began to die in the 1950's.  In those days, Catholics lived in tight-knit neighborhoods, in "Catholic islands," that were isolated from the "outside" world of non-Catholics.  They walked to church through a neighborhood that was populated by Catholics.  They went to Catholic schools and attended Catholic social and sports events.  Philadelphia Catholics identified where they lived by naming their parish.  The "island culture," e.g., of attending Mass, going to Confession, belonging to the Sodality or Holy Name Society, going on retreat, honoring particular saints, etc., was the glue that kept their pious, devotional spirituality intact.

   Beginning in the 1950's, Catholics moved out of their "islands."  Today the diminishing number of Catholics walk or drive to church--not necessarily their home parish--through neighborhoods of people of many faiths and of no faith.  Many send their children to public schools and they socialize and enjoy entertainment along with the general public.  The "Catholic cultural island glue" is gone, and the old, pious, devotional spirituality is dying as the older generation dies.  And contemporary Catholics keep walking away from the old, "island bound" spirituality that makes no sense to them.  But their search for the Infinite has not died.  It has evolved.

   An increasing number of today's evolving Catholics are searching for a spirituality that will be understandable and effective in today's post-modern world of different faiths and no faith. They don't need a spirituality with its "churchy" pieties and devotions; they need a spirituality that gives them a personal experience of God that enables them to relate to God and others in a way that is meaningful and effective in today's society and culture of dehumanizing, over-specialized education, hectic chasing after the latest technological fad, economic greed, political insanity, etc.  They don't need to be invited to "come back home" to the "churchy" spirituality that wore out years ago.

   They need a spirituality that will show them what they, as Catholics, have in common with other people of good will, whether of other faiths or no faith.  They need to know how to discern God's presence and intentions, and prophetically act to help humanize today's society and culture, by elevating and even correcting them in the loving, saving grace of Christ--without imposing our religion on anyone.  Where are the spiritual leaders who can form and guide them in the spirituality they rightfully need and that their baptismal grace rightfully demands?

   The spirituality that so many of today's Catholics are seeking is available.  It began to be developed at Vatican II and has evolved a half century since then.  But as Philadelphia's parishes continue to close, the spirituality that should be becoming prevalent today continues to be unknown or ignored.  Our seeking Catholics continue to be spiritually unfed and un-nourished, and our society and culture continue to suffer needlessly.  As the 1960's song poignantly asked, "When will they ever learn?"