Religion in the Modern World

1,657 words

Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.


Spinning Your Wheels

“Spinning Your Wheels”the image evokes futility: activity without movement, work without result, redundancy, frustration and a measure of myopia. All the moral issues that the Pope’s “Exhortation” Amoris Laetitia addresses have already been settled by the people.

The absence of any mention of contraception suggests that the Pope may not be unaware of that. Artificial contraception has not only been recognized as morally acceptable by the people, it has been heartily embraced as essential to reproductive responsibility. The people decided long ago to stop listening to their teachers in this matter and their behav­ior directly contradicts what the hierarchy commands. The Pope’s silence on this is most welcome.

On the question of divorce and remarriage, not only have the people opted for the freedom to dissolve dysfunctional marriages, but the hierarchical Church itself at the local diocesan level has for over forty years pursued a policy of expanding the category of annulment to include virtually all the circumstances that used to characterize divorce. Failure to acknowledge the complicity of the Church in the granting of divorce in practice as annulment tends to confirm the suspicion that there is a selective blindness in play here.

On the issue of gay marriage, after a great deal of debate the majority of Americans have decided that a committed relationship between partners who are drawn to physical union with those of the same sex, should be considered valid and respected by society.   Same sex marriage is supported by Catholics in the same percentages as by people associated with other religious institutions or no religion.

While many welcome the Pope’s more “liberal” attitudes, others criticize his unwillingness to attempt any structural change in these matters, even though the voice of the people is clear. That leaves tradition in place. Hence the nature of the document is merely an “exhortation.” But who is being exhorted, if the people are already convinced and have decided? The target of the exhortation seems to be the hierarchy itself, the majority of whom are conservatives appointed by the two previous Popes as an element of their strategy to chill the reform-enthusiasm generated by the Second Vatican Council. It is addressed to those clergy who continue to base their pastoral practice on the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage, teachings that the exhortation itself declares will remain unmodified as law.

Therefore, while using the “family” as excuse, the real doctrine that is in question here is the self-projection of the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. A thorough reading of Amoris laetitia reveals that this current Pope is not rejecting in any way the traditional teaching about the infallibility of the Catholic magisterium, the primacy of law and obedience to the teachings of the Church with regard to marriage, and the essential mediatorship of the Church hierarchy in the person of its priests and the rituals they administer in the pursuit of a right relationship to “God.” What the Pope “exhorts” is that the members of the hierarchy who come in direct contact with people, apply traditional unmodified “law” with a modicum of compassion … and in order to do that he asks them to relax the uncompromising rigidity with which compliance has been traditionally enforced.

I say Amoris laetitia is a case of the Pope “spinning his wheels” because on the one hand for the laity the exhortation is pointless, and on the other, the predominantly reactionary hierarchy, having identified themselves not as the heralds of the “good news” of God’s free forgiveness, but rather as the agents of imperial theocracy for the control of the masses, will, at best, simply embrace compassion as a clever way of “attracting” a reluctant laity in preparation for ultimately confronting them with the infallible truth codified in Catholic law. How else is one to interpret the section of Chapter Eight with the heading: “Gradualness in Pastoral Care” where it is clearly stated that irregular unions “can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacra­ment of marriage.”

There is no acknowledgement that the marriages of billions of people around the globe whether Catholic or not are valid, and just as certainly attain the “ends of marriage” as any conjugal union between Christian partners solemnized at a Christian ceremony. Since the Pope insists on defining marriage as having a necessarily ecclesial-mystical significance “as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church,” other natural unions that “attain a particular stabili­ty, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials …” are still regarded as second-rate and the legitimate target for being upgraded into Christian marriage.

These marriages that have proven their value are still treated as sub-standard because the ends of marriage as far as the Pope’s mindset is concerned are not just what is natural and good for people, but also include what expands the control of the institutional Church administered by the self-appointed, unelected hierarchy. And since we know that the marriage contract is validly sealed by the mutual consent of the partners, it is the extraneous ecclesial dimension that has been cemented into Catholic “law” and requires the “witness” of the hierarchical Church.

The “law” remains the tacit premise of virtually every “exhortation to compassion” in the document which in their turn then become “exceptions to the law” not gospel imperatives. There is no acknowledge­ment that the only message the Church should have, following St Paul, is the “good news,” not law, neither old nor new, but rather the announcement of a general amnesty — a pardon of limitless proportions. Therefore the “exhortation” to enforce the law compassionately contradicts the gospel message and ultimately the nature of the Church.

Of course, one might say what it really reveals is the nature of the Church as the document conceives it. Far from humbly admitting that the Church is one groping religious institution among many in a world teeming with sincere people dedicated to live lives of moral integrity and deep gratitude, the document tacitly insinuates the transcendent superiority of the Catholic Church, its peculiar view of things and its rules of conduct over all other traditions and Churches. At no point are people, Catholic or not, encouraged to associate with any other religious organization nor attempt to find human wholeness by following other possibly non-religious programs. The document does not contemplate the possibility that these other traditions, or no traditions, may provide opportunities for spiritual growth for those who for one reason or another find the Catholic or Christian or traditional religious worldview inadequate or incompatible with their own.

“Human” is the key notion. The hierarchical Church assumes the arrogant attitudes that it does because it thinks it is not human, it is divine.   Please stop for a second and let that sink in. The Catholic Church thinks it is a divine entity and enjoys one of the properties that belong to “God” alone: infallibility in matters of religion, which includes faith and morals. Those of us that come from a Catholic background find this statement all too familiar. We have heard it since we were children. The hierarchical Church thinks it is the specially chosen, protected and guaranteed agent of “God” himself and that acceptance of its message and inclusion in its institutional membership with its ritual requirements is the only way to authentically connect with “God.” All other “ways” are inadequate, even those of other Christian Churches who are committed to following Jesus’ message and differ from the Catholic only in the refusal to accept the authority of the Pope.

Now if we could lay the blame for all this at the feet of Jesus, we might feel more forgiving toward the current hierarchs. But, as a matter of fact, even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus was opposed to any such blasphemous arrogance like the claim to be divine, and was notorious for insisting that “law” should not be the guiding category in human behavior.

So the source of the Catholic Church’s outrageous claim to divine status and infallibility was not Jesus. That particular inheritance came from the Roman Empire which had already been a theocracy for a thousand years when Constantine chose Christianity to be his state religion. Christianity was expected to fill the role once played by the now discredited gods who were responsible for victory in battle and therefore for distributing power, wealth and slaves among the people of the world.   Rome had clearly been their favorite. Rome enjoyed divine protection. Diva Roma it was called: “Divine Rome.”

The “divinity” of the Roman Empire and its highest representative was such an axiom that when early Christians refused to acknowledge it they were persecuted with torture and death. In 410 when the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome, Christianity was faced with the accusation that the gods punished Rome for betraying their contract and switching to the Christian God.  Augustine wrote The City of God to prove that Constantine’s new Christian “God” was just as effective at justifying Roman conquest and the ensuing rape and pillage of other nations as “preparing the world for Christianity.” Augustine was convinced that the Roman Empire — regardless of the methods it used — was the agent of “God.” It was still diva Roma.

Roman Christianity — Catholicism — reshaped and fine-tuned by Constantine himself for its new role, became the Imperial “Department of State Religion.” It was the handmaiden of the Empire in its work of ruling the world. Catholicism was the religious side of Roman governance, but like the “secular arm” which was its partner, it was always focused on only one thing: crowd control. The soft-side of control was to elicit obedience; when that failed compliance was coerced by the sword. The claim to infallibility was a function of theocracy.

Hence the Church turned from transcending law, as Paul explained it, to promulgating law and finding ways to punish those who did not obey. It was now Rome’s Church. It’s job was to rule the world and it transformed itself from the messenger of a Forgiving Father, to the policeman of a Demanding Emperor.

The document fairly reeks of these assumptions. The Catholic Church needs more than a compassionate Pope who is courageous enough to confront the unmerciful among his fellow bishops. It needs to re-appropriate its own humanity before it dares to talk to others about what it means to be human. A Church that cannot err is not human. And a Church that has erred conspicuously and yet refuses to admit its error, beg forgiveness and display a “firm purpose of amendment” will never be free of the weight of its errors. It is speaking to a world that has moved on and is no longer listening. It will stay stuck in place forever insisting on its divine prerogatives, spinning its wheels.


The point of it all is our sense of the sacred

All religions of “the Book” are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.” “God’s” remoteness is absolute; there is no common ground between Creator and creature.  Any contact must come on the initiative of “God.”  “God” must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact.  Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not allow any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a transcendent, inaccessible, absolutely sovereign, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe.  While these traditions also allow for divine immanence, it is always a secondary non-essential feature, generally an esoteric gnosis reserved for monks and other spiritual elite, subordinate to transcendence and easily corrupted into the mere “presence” of the transcendent “God.”[1] It was because Calvin saw “God’s” omnipotent transcendence as the very definition of “Godhood” that he was not only comfortable with predestination, but actually saw it as essential.

“Inaccessibility” was considered the Greek counterpart of Genesis where Yahweh is described as creating all things from nothing and therefore transcendent over and different from everything else that exists.  But in order for Plato’s “One,” dwelling in remote tranquil isolation, to create and control the material world, an intermediary was needed — a lower class workman, who would allow the aristocratic master of the house the leisure to pursue matters of the mind without the tedium and travail of manual labor.  The ultimate issue for Platonists, of course, was matter.  The “One” was “Pure Spirit” living in contemplative serenity, and could not be contaminated in any way with matter and the mental turmoil of wrestling with its resistances.

And so the “Craftsman” emerged from Plato’s fertile imagination the Demiourgos whom Jewish Philo translated for readers of the Septuagint as Logos and assimilated to the personified “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8.  It was a Platonic analogue for Genesis 1, and it shows that the entire fourth century trinitarian development, impelled by Constantine’s demand for a dogmatic clarity that would allow him to enforce universal compliance in the Imperial Religion, evolved from the assumptions of Platonic theory and was not biblical at all.  In the 1540’s the Socinian[2] reformers among others, realized this and insightfully took their “reform” back before Nicaea.

The inaccessibility of Plato’s “One” does not in the least resemble the “loving father” evoked in parable after parable by Jesus in the gospels.  Jesus had no Greek philosophical commitments.  He could read Genesis directly without Platonic overlays and say quite simply that Yahweh was a loving Father who created the world all by himselfThe Hebrew Yahweh had no need of a secondary deity to keep him from getting his hands dirty; Yahweh was the direct maker of all things.  Everything he created was “good,” i.e., it was well-made as one would expect of a good workman who only rested when his work was done.  The difference between the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of “God” clearly reflects the difference between a class-society run on slave-labor by an intellectual elite and a society of herdsmen and farmers, artisans and their helpers, where work was not alienated and dehumanizing but something to take pride in, as Yahweh did when he saw that what he had done was very very good. 

The further connection between a society where manual labor was dehumanized, and the demonization of bodily matter as the antithesis of a mental spirit, should not be overlooked or downplayed.  The domination of Christianity by Platonic philosophical assumptions in the trinitarian affair is a clear indication that by the fourth century orthodox doctrine was being elaborated by the Greco-Roman educated upper-class.  That this development was accompanied by the introduction of a caste system into Christianity arrogating authority and the performance of ritual to a hierarchy alone in a way that contradicted the spirit and practice of the earliest communities, supports an historical hypothesis that otherwise lacks direct documentation: by the late second or early third century Christianity had undergone a revolution.  An upper class coup had taken place that radically altered the apostolic inheritance; it all but eliminated any hope that Christianity might faithfully reflect the Yahwist message of Jesus.  And it was a Christianity firmly under upper-class control that formed the Roman Catholic world whose late mediaeval phase scandalized Luther a thousand years later.

Please do not misunderstand the import of all this analysis.  I am not condemning as willful oppression the Christianity that was in place at the time of the harrowing Diocletian persecutions in 310, nor the various attempts on the part of Late Mediaeval Christians to reform the Church they had inherited.  I am saying they are not our circumstances and we cannot allow them to define our response.  We are not on an historical quest here, as if returning to some status quo ante will recuperate a lost integrity.  The Christians of Late Antiquity restructured Christianity to reflect the class-system and social values of their times, and the reformers in their turn brought Mediaeval Christianity into conformity with the emerging modern world as they saw it.  We may evaluate the effects of their choices, but it is not our place to judge the sincerity of their efforts.

Jesus message, for its part, was no different.  He shared a vision with the people of his time, place and circumstances.  Those conditions are not ours.  There is nothing definitive in any of these visions, much less in their forms of expression, including Jesus’, and while we may learn much from the struggles of each in attempting to stay faithful to a sane and available humanity, no one of them is a rigid blueprint for us.  No less than they, we have the responsibility of discovering what it means to be profoundly human in a way that reflects our current perception of how we are related to this universe that spawned us.

Jesus, as far as we can tell, took the narrative of creation in Genesis as literal.  That narrative no longer applies today.  Only if taken as allegory would it even remotely resemble what we know is the ultimate source of the sacred for us — material energy — and it is our sense of the sacred that is the point of it all.

The Sense of the Sacred

I can’t emphasize this enough.  Our sense of the sacred is the fulcrum of this enquiry.  It is the centerpiece of all religion … because it is the centerpiece of being human.  It is religion’s source and its goal … .  Our sense of the sacred is what evokes all our “absolute” values.  It underpins our awe and gratitude — our love of life — the sheer joy of being-here-now as ourselves; it gives birth to our thirst for fairness, an abhorrence for injustice, a compassion and forbearance for weakness; it embraces law and reasonableness in the resolutions of our conflicts; it generates our desire to nourish the life around us, impelling us to work to sustain ourselves and to sacrifice our own individual “selves” for the benefit of others — our families, our community, other species, and the planet which produced us.  Our sense of the sacredness of life is what makes us human.  It is the energy behind all honest law and politics, all sincere search for truth and understanding, all dedication to beauty, and its expression in word and work: poetry, art, architecture, music.

Our sense of the sacred is the overarching value, the solid ground, the one and only absolute that drives our religious quest.  All other things are secondary, subordinate and ancillary to the evocation of our sense of the sacred.  Its preservation is our responsibility; the failure of religion does not let us off the hook.  Religion receives its entire validity, its entire meaning, its entire reason-for-being by satisfying one and only one requirement: that it realistically nourishes our sense of the sacredness of life.  Nothing — not “God” nor Jesus nor bible nor Church … not ritual nor prayer nor mystical experience … neither vision nor revelation nor dogma nor ancient tradition — is of any value if it does not serve our sense of the sacred here and now which is the reverberation of our specifically human relationship to existence.  “Religion” in other words, is not sacred in itself; religion is a tool.  It is sacred only to the degree that it unveils and uncovers for us the sacredness of the universe and our lives in it.  If it fails us, we have to look elsewhere.  Our religion may have to be discarded, but we cannot allow our sense of the sacred to die; we cannot allow it to be dismissed as robotic illusion, nor can we let ethnic idolatry trap us into thinking that without our ancestral religion there is nothing sacred. 

Can the bible’s concept of “God” support our sense of the sacred?  First we have to acknow­ledge that with “God” we are dealing with a symbol — a human idea and associated imagery not a known entity.  No one has ever seen “God.”  We do not have “God” present to observe, define, measure and test.  Jesus did not elaborate on his imagery about “God.”  He seems to have been content with the common notions about “God” assumed by the Jewish people of his time.

Jesus was not focused on clarifying what “God” was like, nor, besides saying we were “God’s” children, did he emphasize the individual’s relationship to “God.”  Jesus promoted just and compassionate relationships among human beings and made it clear that this was the way the Jewish Nation was to fulfill the “law”— by imitating the generosity of a good “God.”  He was operating within the traditional framework of the “covenant.”  Jesus’ great innovation was to humanize the requirements of the law, and in so doing, he humanized “God.”  But I want to underline: he did not teach any new “doctrine of God.”  His “father” was the Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures.

The key elements of Jesus’ image were that (1) a good “God” made the world from nothing (2) as an expression of his goodness and creative power, and that (3) this “God” wills that what he created good should remain good, and that being good for us means being human toward one another; that was the fulfillment of “his” willThe creative abilities of this “God,” if he is to have literally accomplished what the scriptures said, were assumed by a pre-scientific people to be similar to those of the human craftsmen with whom everyone was familiar: potters, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, bakers and weavers, artists and architects.


But we do not live in a pre-scientific age.  We understand “creation” to be a long-term process of material self-extrusion we call evolution.  It was not the past work of a rational craftsman but rather the result of the ongoing blind energy to exist.  Material energy is the source of all the forms and features of the known universe; it is also the source of the human sense of the sacred and mysticism.  Matter’s energy did not create the world from nothing, designing all things for a chosen purpose, but rather drew everything out of itself, purposelessly, mindlessly, by the sheer superabundance of its energy to continue in existence as matter.  Evolution means that the homogeneous “stuff” of which everything is made, incrementally modified by minor variations over time, eventually emerges in new forms.  Those forms, made of the same “stuff,” have the same need to fight and survive; they have populated the universe.

We, humans, are one of those forms.  They (we) are different from one another, yes, but we are only forms of the same one “thing” and we all “do” the same one thing: we survive.  Clearly the “God” of Genesis stands in stark contrast to the actual forces at work in the production of the universe and the myriads of species that inhabit our earth.

These “cosmic details” are vastly different from those assumed by the Palestinian Jews of the first century c.e.  But they still remain “details” — the domain of science and philosophy, not religion — and do not necessarily affect the relationship that Jesus was trying to evoke.  The question, therefore, arises: is it possible that the same relationship to source can obtain even if the “cosmic details” are radically changed?  In other words, can the same three key elements that were the focus of the creation account establishing the nature of our relationship to the world’s “creator” be evoked by the evolution narrative just laid out?  Can we say matter’s energy is “good,” chose to create the world from nothing as an expression of its goodness and wishes it to remain good?

Many contemporary Christians, including the current Pope, Francis, would answer affirmatively.  They imagine the traditional “God” with all the same transcendent characteristics given by Genesis but they locate him “behind the scenes;” they see him designing and employing evolution as a tool — like a sculptor’s chisel or a potter’s wheel — working on the homogeneous “stuff” of the universe to give recognizable shape and purpose to what would otherwise be an amorphous uniformity.

But it won’t work as a literal description because it does not correspond to the observed reality.  There is no plan or purpose behind the evolution of things.  They are simply responses to changing environmental conditions on the part of a material energy that is mindlessly compelled to continue in existence.  It has no purpose, in other words, beyond being-here and remaining itself.  The absence of purpose and plan seems to indicate that there is no rational mind “behind the scenes” pulling the puppet strings, otherwise you would have to say that the puppeteer was intentionally disguising rational purpose beneath appearances which are patently directed by and to self-survival.  It would contradict the Christian claim that Creation was intended as “God’s” self-display, the first of a series of “revelations” to the Jewish people leading up to the revelation of his “Son” in the person of Jesus, announced by John as a kind of new creation — a second Genesis.  Besides even if it were some kind of off-beat self-display, as some have suggested: a divine self-empty­ing, a kenosis, done to emphasize respect for the autonomy of matter as co-creator,[3] why did “Providence” wait so long to reveal this central dynamic with its important message?  Evolution only became a serious hypothesis 150 years ago, and since that time most religions of the Book have resisted it because it contradicts scripture.  Why would the same “God” who revealed himself in scripture choose to reveal his respect for matter’s autonomy in such a self-contra­dict­ing manner?  Readers of the bible who reject “evolution” can hardly be accused of disregarding “God’s” attempt to reveal himself.

Frankly, I believe these efforts fail because they insist on retaining the traditional anthropomorphic imagery of a “God” who is an individual entity, a rational person, distinct and separate from everything else that exists, and with the added feature of an inaccessible “otherness” contributed by Platonic Philosophy and linked to creatio ex nihilo and the notion of “Pure Spirit.”  The Platonists at least recognized that a material creation could not be attributed to a Pure Spirit without fatally compromising the purity of its spirituality.

I think we have to confront this traditional, western “doctrine of God” and frankly acknowledge that it is simply untenable and that is why, throughout our intellectual history, every attempt to reconcile the anthropomorphic imagery of Genesis with a rational explanation has ended in disaster.  The Trinity is the prime example.  The Christian Trinity taken as anything more than poetic metaphor is an irrational absurdity that was generated by Platonists, ironically, from the failed effort to make rational sense out of the dualist anomaly of a material universe proceeding from a “God” who is pure unmixed spirit.  The absurdity is not lessened in the least by calling it a “mystery,” citing vague scriptural allusions, and haughtily dismissing dissent as intellectually puerile.  Not only does the “immanent”[4] Trinity make no sense, how could those men ever have imagined they could come to know the very inner life of “God” just by thinking about it?

Where do we go from here?  If we finally have the courage to abandon these efforts to accommodate an ancient religious tradition that used an anthropomorphic and pre-scientific imagery that is untenable if taken literally, we may begin to move forward based on our sense of the sacred, which is, I contend, what it is all about.

[1] Cf. Raimundo Panikkar’s The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man (Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1973) pp.30-32: Panikkar says this kind of “presence,” like the renter of a room in a house, remains completely separate.  There is no “essential” unity.

[2] Socinians: were the 16th century Followers of Faustus Socinus and the forerunners of the Universalist Unitarians of today.

[3] This “theory” has been adduced by John Haught

[4]Immanent” in the context of trinitarian theology refers to “what ‘God’ is like in ‘him’self,” even if ‘he’ had no relationships ad extram.  Relatively recent studies like God for Us by the late Catherine Mowry La Cugna, clearly call for a de-emphasis on thinking of the Trinity as ontologically “immanent” in the Godhead rather than as an “economic” metaphor — i.e., our perception that “God” acts in the world in three distinct ways.

Dream on, sleeper, dream on

Many years ago when I was a young man, I found myself in midtown Manhattan with over an hour to wait for a scheduled bus connection.  Looking for some distraction I went into a nearby movie theater that was showing short subjects and among them a prominently advertised flick by Andy Warhol.

 I can’t remember its name but I will never forget the movie.  The camera was aimed at a large bed, and never moved.  As the film opened, a young man entered camera range, sat on the bed, took off his shoes and lay down.  He quickly fell asleep and the film rolled on.  Nothing happened … ever.  He slept.  Every so often he would roll over onto one side, then roll back onto the other.  I left after half an hour but found out later that the movie ran on like that for hours.  The theater was not very full, and as the audience began to realize that this was all we were going to get, the reactions became quite audible: some laughed, some expressed anger at being insulted.  We had been had.  We were all drawn in there on Warhol’s name, and he flipped us the bird.  I was dumbfounded.  I did not know what to make of it.

 I still don’t.  But I came away with a distinct impression: the film was so utterly boring … so totally without action, interaction, relationship or thought, that I found my attention becoming drawn to any motion whatsoever.  The highlights were the few times the guy rolled over.  Those tiny wrinkles of modulation in an otherwise immense motionless continuum, had become the source of expectation and, believe it or not, when they occurred, satisfaction.

 Looking at the “filming” of the “Synod on the Family,” going on in Rome these days I can think of no more apt symbol than that outrageous “gotcha” by Warhol.  We are, just as surely, being had.  The media attention is the camera recording a ripple in an otherwise vast unchanging sea of stagnant Catholic dogma and decrees.  The sleeping behemoth has rolled over … the action, in context, is riveting … we are tense with expectation, and the many who have already had their minds cauterized by the scarring of a thousand years of repetitive immutability, live in a catatonic state with brains atrophied beyond the possibility of resuscitation, actually think there is something happening here.

 Nothing that comes out of this synod will have the slightest effect on the way people live their lives.  No one, absolutely no one, is looking to the synod to guide their moral choices, and according to polls, not even Catholics.  The mighty magisterium has long since lost all moral relevance to any but the ever dwindling coterie of those who cannot shake off the church-induced nightmare of a monster-“God” who obediently binds his punitive wrath to the pontifications of the Catholic hierarchy.  The only effect this synod’s decisions could possibly have is on the hierarchy itself.  The hierarchy could begin to dispel the impression created over the last 50 years that it is a mediaeval anachronism hardened in the willful rejection of its own Conciliar resolutions.  But to do that it would have to make a break with the past … and wake up.

 But the sleeper cannot wake up, and for two reasons: First, de facto, the Synod is a toothless “consultative” body under Papal presidency (and the mandatory presence of the heads of all Curial departments) made up of male prelates only — not even the heads of women’s’ religious orders can participate, much less lower clergy, priests and deacons, and lay people, men and women, who are the only members of the church with appropriate experience in these matters, sex and families — and we are to believe something will happen?  The fact that it was intended as a rubber-stamp of Papal wishes, ironically, may be the only source of hope, because this particular pope seems sincerely to want to move forward.  But in my opinion, the only authentic thing this this non-representative klatch of ageing male celibates could do would be to disband itself and humbly declare to the world that it had nothing meaningful to say to people with whom it has nothing in common.

 The second is that, de jure, these men, including the Pope, are committed to uphold decrees that function with the force of law and enjoy an official aura of infallibility.  The “sacred magisterium” to which they have pledged loyalty is firmly in place.  Its authority is held in such awe that it would instantly neutralize any decision that was taken in opposition to it, even if by some miracle it should ever occur.

 Birth control is not the only example of this captivity to the magisterium, but it serves well.  Papal deference to the magisterium decreed 50 years ago that the use of contraceptives was “intrinsically evil” in utter disregard of the recommendations of a “consultative” body of prelates and others assigned to the task by the pope himself.  Since nothing can change without repudiating tradition, it’s hard to imagine how things could possibly be any different today.  Why even think about it?  Tradition that functions as dogma and “law” can never be changed.  The star of the movie may toss and turn, but his role is to keep on sleeping.  The obsession of insisting that the Church can never change because it can never be wrong is narcissistic hubris.  If you are never wrong, by definition there is never anything to change, you never have to repudiate the past, you never have to wake up.

 But while I call it hubris and intentionally insinuate narcissistic self-involvement, for many Catholics it is actually much worse.  It is sincere!  It’s an honest response to a belief in the infallibility of the magisterium and the divine establishment of hierarchical government and papal autocracy.  And precisely because it is sincere, it is impervious to self-correction.  For individuals, thinking they are infallible is clearly a “delusion of grandeur” recognized by all as a pathology out of touch with reality.  But in the Catholic Church it is a collective projection that fantasizes imaginary powers and special protections given by “God” exclusively to this institution.  Insane as it might be, this group of people who honestly believe in their own infallibility cannot officially be accused of pathology because they comprise a socially recognized and respected institution.  This social recognition reduces to near zero any hope that they will be challenged and possibly convinced by argument and evidence that their attitude is in fact a pathological “delusion of grandeur.”

 So the sleeper never wakes up.  It always takes a while before the fact sinks in, because you can’t believe anyone could be this outrageous.  But once you advert to the reputation of the perpetrators and recall what you already know of their character and conceits, you realize you should have known.  If you don’t walk out, it’s only because you’ve fallen asleep yourself.

The “branding” of Catholicism

This reflection includes some material from earlier posts


As our tribal identities recede into the oblivion of history, religions that are nothing more than ethnic identifiers will follow them. By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that ethnic identification is a superficial phenomenon. The ferocity it can generate was on horrific display in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool soccer enthusiasts attacked rival Juventus fans and many were killed. Religion can play a similar role, and many of us come out of such a tradition. “Catholic,” for many, was simply another word for being Irish or Polish … or some other tribe that perhaps had to defend itself historically against a non-Catholic invader or overlord. “Dogmas” became shibboleths … passwords for who was really in the tribe and who wasn’t. Doctrine came to be used principally to contrast with what was “non-Catholic;” it was a “brand” identifier.

So branding is not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. But in our post-tribal globalized age, when even nation-states can fail, it has a wider application. Branding identifies the successful transnational business corporation which has become the very symbol of solidity, viability and social preeminence. The Roman Catholic Church has lately begun to exploit this potential by identifying itself as a commercial enterprise which offers quality products for sale. Marketing those products is the key to corporate success, and an essential part of marketing is establishing a clearly recognized profile in the global marketplace, a coherent package of visible symbols — a “brand” — that sets the corporation apart from others in the eye of the prospective consumer. These symbols must be immediately associated with its desirable “product line.” As tribal support wanes, the Church needs something it can sell to anyone, anywhere.

“Preserving the Vision”?

Is this just more hyperbole … a fantasy I have conjured to focus my axe-to-grind, my criticism of the Church? Let me assure you it is not.

In the spring of 2012 when the Bishop of Brooklyn NY, USA was questioned about the documented loss of over 200,000 Catholics from his diocese, he responded: “we’ve still got 1.5 million. We can live with a quarter million less.” Coming from someone who professes to believe traditional Catholic doctrine which includes the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” this is astounding! Concern for the salvation of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to do so were never mentioned. The only thing that seemed of interest to the bishop was his organization’s viability.

Is this one man’s idiosyncrasy? In a letter to the NYT dated May 20, 2012, ex-Jesuit Tim Iglesias of Oakland, Calif., wrote:

… I believe that [Catholic church leaders] are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unruly one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy.

If what Iglesias is saying is true, the Brooklyn Bishop is not alone. His attitude is part of a “deliberate strategy” of the hierarchy — corporate manager-bishops — who have unilaterally opted for downsizing the Church based on the efficiency criteria of successful business organizations, not on the definitions and goals set by the Church itself.

The fact that these episcopal sentiments mirror the mindset of the CEOs of major corporations must be seen square­ly for what it is: a redefinition of Church — the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations and operating dynamics of a commercial business enterprise in place of a community that claims to be inspired by the vision of Jesus. We are not dealing with morality here; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a matter of fundamental identity. Are you a Christian community concerned about people, personal liberation, gratitude for life, justice, widows and orphans, or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned about your survival: your “products,” your customers, your income, your assets, your buildings, their utilization and productivity?

As if in answer to that question, less than six months earlier in November 2011 the Diocese of Brooklyn published a “Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools 2011-2014” whose language recapitulates this corporate commercial mindset. It is labeled “Preserving the Vision” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website ( ). It includes the clear order that all Catholic parochial schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing their privatization, their final separation from the parish and any semblance of being the project of a “Christian community.” Education for the paying elite, whether Catholic or not, will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells. The mission statement for the “strategic plan” makes this clear:

Goal #2: Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.

Effective marketing? Outreach to diverse communities? Those phrases reveal the commercial nature of the ecclesiastical efforts. The fact that we are talking about conversion to “academies” should dispel any illusion that “diverse” might mean an outreach to the poor … when would you ever “market” to people who, by definition, cannot pay? It is precisely to bypass traditional commitment to the poor in favor of paying customers that this qualifies as a “strategy.” “Diverse” clearly refers to “non-Catholics” who are willing to pay for high quality, private education, where their children can pursue excellence undistracted by “under-achieving” needy Catholics — immigrants’ children — shunted to the public schools.

There is a whole section on “marketing.” The following is from a list (p.13) of strategic goals for the “marketing” effort. Notice the conspicuous use of the word “branding”:

Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and acade­mies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand through­out the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.


16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the dio­cesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.

16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.

This uncharacteristic use of terminology coincided, in a most revealing way, with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on his June 11th 2012 meeting with the nuns of LCWR Levada said:

“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” [1]

Product identity”? This kind of untraditional talk used in such unconnected circum­stances fairly compels the conclusion that the corporate managers — the bishops — are in agreement defining the Church as a commercial enterprise; and they are spontaneously using terminology that reflects their objectives.


Based on this I am going to extrapolate and make a serious accusation and prediction: that the morally discredited hierarchy of the American Catholic Church, saddled with an obsolete, incoherent doctrinal inheritance, and faced with the erosion of support from preferred ethnics, is deciding to turn an irrational doctrinal liability to corporate advan­tage by marketing its beliefs as “ancient tradition” regardless of their lack of “truth” value. “Tra­­di­tion” gives an aura of depth and quality to its various services — its “product line” — which include education. This might seem a commonplace observation about a “common sense” strategy. But it takes on a severe condemnatory significance because it means that the Church, far from grappling with the reformulation or repudiation of erroneous, useless and even damaging dogmatic anomalies, is … for “branding” purposes only … entrenching itself behind them, and thus becoming a cynical purveyor of delusion. In its desperation to find a way to escape its terminal obsolescence, the Church leadership has abandoned any concern for the truth.

“Truth,” I contend, has been abandoned. What at one time, and not that long ago, was a sincere belief in the inerrancy of the magisterium, is no longer held by the well-educated Church authorities who are as savvy and modern as the rest of us. The corpus of doctrine is cynically being kept unchanged by men who really do not believe these doctrines are relevant any longer, in order to promote the corporate “branding” for its product line. Pope Francis’ recognition that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church … cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,”[2] reflects this attitude; it suggests that his pastoral style could easily be made to coincide with the strategy of rehabilitation through corporate re-definition. The pope suggests doctrinal insistence is irrelevant, but he does not offer to retract one iota from the dogmatic absurdities hallowed as “tradition.”

This is disturbing. The entire human family appreciates Francis’ warm, familial, humble demeanor and pastoral priorities. His style is a welcome change in the leadership projections of the Catholic Church, which has been, historically, arrogant and overbearing in the extreme.

But it has become clear in the year since the beginning of his papacy that he has absolutely no intention of moving to reform doctrine, even those easily modified like the absurd rationale for the ban on contraceptives and the utterly hollow basis for denying priesthood to women. Our feelings for Francis should not excuse a profound betrayal. The autocracy of Roman Catholicism has been consolidated to the point where no change of any significance can take place unless it is initiated or at least actively supported by papal authority. If Francis has decided he will not attempt to modify the inherited teaching on faith or morals in any way, it cannot happen. There is no other agent of change in the Church. He has to realize if he has any interest in change — and many believe his actions imply he does — he is the one who has to do it. Others may be willing to assume the burdens of “cleaning up” the dogmatic mess and allowing him to live a simple life as he seems to desire, but they cannot; as the Church is currently structured they are not the custodians of doctrine, he is.

The ironic thing is that the first doctrines that need to be changed are those that justify the exclusive power of the pope in these matters. The fact that they are accepted as doctrines means that they are not readily perceived as the typical self-serving justifications always trotted out by autocrats determined to maintain their exclusive grip on power. They are touted as “sacred” dogma. All Catholics (in theory) believe in (1) the inerrancy of the magisterium managed solely by the hierarchy, (2) the infallibility of the pope when teaching ex cathedra on faith or morals, and (3) the apostolic succession of all bishops. These doctrines are declared to be “truths” revealed by “God.”

But I claim the battle ground has shifted. These doctrines are no longer promoted because they are “true,” nor even because they mystify the faithful. The doctrines are clung to because they are “Catholic” and the Catholic “brand” sells. The hierarchy owns the corporation, and the corporation needs those doctrines for its identity. Up-scale families want to send their kids to private “Catholic” schools. The preservation of “tradition” now means things cannot be allowed to change not because they are eternally true, but because they are the essence of the Catholic corporate “brand.”

The hierarchy’s decision to recuperate legitimacy in the form of corporate success through “product identity” and the “branding” that it requires, promises to compound the intransigence against doctrinal reform exponentially. Catholic doctrine is central to its “branding.” There is nothing that symbolizes Catholicism and sets it apart from all other institutions more than the three doctrines just mentioned above. Imagine a Catholic Church without a pope! The papacy is an essential symbol for the corporate Catholic “brand.” If our morally discredited Church with its baggage of destructive, erroneous and irrelevant doctrines continues to survive, it will be thanks to its corporate success in marketing its “product line” and the “branding” that accompanies it. “Branding” by the very nature of what it is designed to do, will reinforce the resistance to doctrinal change; for if Catholic doctrine is allowed to change, the Church will no longer be recognizable as Catholic. Once ethnic community is supplanted by mass impersonal entities like the transnational ecclesiastical corporation, branding recognition is indispensable to survival.


“Loss of recognition” is disastrous for the mass organization. It was the “mistake” made at Vatican II and it helps explain the confusion among the ordinary Catholic people precipitating a devastating fifty-year conservative backlash led by, but by no means limited to, the hierarchy. It affected many areas of Church life, but let’s just look at one: the Eucharist.

For many Catholics in 1965, changing the way they related to the Eucharist changed the Church beyond recognition. That generation is almost gone, but many of us remember the bewilderment that people of our parents’ age went through when it was announced that the worship of the Eucharistic host was no longer the point of the mass. They were told the mass is to be understood as a symbolic meal evoking love of neighbor … after having been taught all their lives that what distinguished Catholics from Protestants was that the mass brought “God” to earth; we had “God” in the tabernacle, they didn’t. The “real presence” was the centerpiece of counter-reforma­tion Catholicism. Vatican II, by emphasizing the symbolic value of the Eucharistic bread and changing the focus of the mass from “God” to the human community, overturned all that. It had the practical effect of diminishing the importance of the real presence and ending Catholicism’s insistence on its radical superiority over Protestantism. It simultaneously undermined other associated doctrines like the ex opere operato (automatic) function of sacramental ritual and the absolutely indispensable role of the priestly sigillum (“indelible seal”) with its magical power to transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. All that changed.

Consider the devastating effect of announcing the primacy of symbolism: If the mass were truly more than a symbol, then the symbolism should have remained secondary to the literal, factual reality of the real presence, because “reality” trumps all ancillary factors. But if the symbolic is validly given highest priority then you really don’t need a priest, anyone can make and recognize a symbol. How is this different from what the Protes­tants have been saying? What started out as a necessary course correction for a doctrine that had yawed too far in the direction of scientific fact, turned out to completely upend the Catholic worldview as it then existed precisely because the entire interconnected worldview had been taken as scientific fact.

So the Catholic Church lost its uniqueness in the eyes of its own people. The view being encouraged by the Council tended to put Catholicism on the same level as other Christian religions, no better, no worse, to be judged by fidelity to the gospel not by its magical powers. Despite the ensuing conservative backlash, there really was no going back. The cat was out of the bag. The sacraments are symbols, not vending machines. The Roman Catholic priest was no longer a mystical Merlin bringing Christ back to earth in the mass which was also supposed to sustain his life of celibate “holiness.” Celibacy lost its mystique. The ideological source of Catholic exceptionalism was swept away and the Church stood naked before the world … the victim of centuries of self-delusion, painted into a corner by its own insistence that its doctrines were scientific fact and its priests performed miracles. Catholics’ supreme self-confidence collapsed because their divinized self-image evaporated. Such catastrophic loss of self-esteem could never be reversed.


Or could it? I believe recourse to corporate success as compensation for that loss was predictable for an organization that had inherited a massive infrastructure of property: land, buildings, schools, hospitals … and a tradition of service. Indeed, the Church’s identity as a “service provider” in education was already well established. Once all that infrastruc­ture was stripped of its self-involved religious meaning what was left was its value to larger society, hence the pursuit of recog­nition as a corporation that provides “quality” education and other services.

The Church does not use its doctrines, like the “real presence” for their truth value any longer but only for their “branding” power. The truth value of the “real presence” had already been devalued by Vatican II. The Church can no longer return to that worldview. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is symbolic; its “reality,” i.e., its sacramental efficacy, derives from its symbolism, not the other way around. The “spirit” of Jesus becomes present in the community of love evoked by the symbolic meal of sharing. The power of symbols is the new paradigm that rules this sea-change in Catholic self-definition and ritual practice. Doctrine, as usual, lags behind prayer-life and needs to catch-up. Catholicism must begin reformulating (or repudiating) doctrines — like the “real presence” — that had originally been falsely articulated in terms of magic words and scientific “fact” and restate them as necessary to accommodate their reality as symbol.

But if the Church becomes captive to the siren call of the marketplace, and refuses to allow its ancient formulations to change because it is now committed to preserve the purity of its “brand,” it continues proclaiming doctrines known to be false or falsely stated, and now without even the excuse that it believes them. This would explain the Brooklyn bishop’s lack of concern that 200,000 Catholics had left his Church. He isn’t a monster; like the rest of us he simply no longer believes that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

This is the dilemma facing the present pope. He cannot absent himself from these developments. Catholic doctrine is burdened with the delusions of millennia. Ignoring doctrine will not make it go away; that is the greatest delusion of all. Doing nothing is itself a choice to continue the mystifications of the past, and no one is fooled by them any longer.

The money changers are starting to take over the temple. It was something that Jesus could not ignore and would not tolerate. It’s what got him killed. The bishops are turning their churches into business corporations right before Francis’ eyes, and their doctrinal conservatism is cynical and insincere in service to it. This is all happening on his watch. It is time to ask the hard question: is Francis’ “benign neglect” passively complicit with this development? I am inclined to say that even granting him the benefit of my doubt, it is still a cop-out … it avoids accepting responsibility for what the Church has done with what it calls the “truth.”


The Church has always claimed it was the guardian of the “truth” and the “truth” was the basis of its claims to power. Throughout its history, no matter how venal and morally corrupt its leadership, no matter how it compromised with wealth and power, no matter how it betrayed the widow and the orphan, it has never wavered on what it insisted was the “truth” that grounded its right to rule. For the pope to dismiss that “truth” now as an irrelevant “obsession” and not own up to the damage it has caused, is grossly irresponsible.

The “truth” was used to justify genocidal crusades launched by direct papal initiative against Islam and dissident “heretical” Christians. The “truth” mattered so much that the Church was willing to encourage Christians to kill people in its defense and in its promotion. And in the matter of the Jews, beginning with the gospels themselves the Church’s version of the “truth” provided the rationale for Jew-hatred that has lasted throughout Christian history. Christian rhetoric about the “truth” of divine providence drove the Christian population of Europe to conclude that only the physical elimination of the Jewish people who denied the “truth” of the divinity of Christ and the necessity of baptism for “salvation” would guarantee that natural disasters would not be visited upon them by “God” in punishment for the presence of Jews in their midst. Every outbreak of plague brought pogroms of slaughter to the Jews.

The virulent anti-Judaic attitudes that seethed beneath the surface in all the countries of Europe in the years leading up to the Nazi holocaust insured that what was happening at Auschwitz and Buchenwald would be ignored if not tacitly approved, and we know now that the Vatican itself was part of that “passive complicity.” The holocaust was the “final solution” prepared for by two thousand years of Christian “truth.” To treat the doctrinal complex that comprises Christian “truth” now as of no relevance is a betrayal of integrity of monstrous proportions. There is no impunity for genocidal Pinochets and Milosevics and the machete-killers of Ruanda. There is no “statute of limitations.” The Church must account for its claim to be custodian of a “truth” that precipitated so much horror. To walk away in silence when you have finally come to know that your “truth” was all along nothing but a self-serving delusion that harbored a psychopathic murderous paranoia toward others, is a crime against humanity in a class by itself.

Tribal “Catholicism” is on the way out. It is disappearing because tribal identity is disappearing in a globalized world … I say, good riddance. People can find other ways to protect their cultural heritage. But there is a new monstrosity coming to birth in its wake, a globalized Church with a new identity: the corporate commercial enterprise, supine before the forces of the market which would make us all commodities to be bought and sold. We don’t need this Church either. When will we learn? Roman Imperial Christianity made Jesus “God” and chained him to its program of conquest and control; it created a machinery that, even as things changed, has functioned, inerrantly, for that same purpose ever since.

If we are to liberate ourselves from its grip, we will have to liberate Jesus along with us.


[1]John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012

[2] From Interview w/ Antonio Spadaro pub in America Sept.30, 2013



charisma and structure: a reflection

We live in a material universe.  Human individuals are biological organisms.  They live and then they die.  When they die their visions, their energy, their projects end.  The only way to insure that their aspirations will continue on past their lifetimes is through the institutionalization of their intentions in the form of social structures.  Society is potentially immortal; its members are not.

Society is a virtual reality.  Virtual reality is what we construct with our minds; it has the reality that we give it.  Even though these mental projections are invisible and have no mass or velocity, they are very real, for other socialized individuals are formed by them and  translate them into visible tangible realities:  work, buildings, machines, rituals, armies, cemeteries.  The declarations, constitutions, laws and the decisions made by social entities, are the only way that the élan of any individual or group of individuals can live on through multiple generations.  This is what it means to be human: we are what we think we are, and what we think we are is embedded in the virtualities of our social structures.

Even though they are only virtual reality, social structures obey laws that are not entirely unlike biological organisms.  Evolution is one of those laws.  The ongoing conversation between what our ancestors thought and what we now think, inevitably entails modulation — change.  This is  universal; it applies as much to the Catholic Church as to any other social institution.  Who Catholics think they are — how they perceive the world around them and how they think they should behave — cannot be determined solely by the decisions of generations past.  It evolves under pressure from new emergent realities, and from new knowledge about old realities.  Modern Catholics are finding it increasingly difficult to understand themselves and the universe that spawned them in the terms inherited from ancient times which the Catholic “teaching authority” insists continue in force today.  This intelligibility gap is threatening the ability of Catholics to identify themselves as Catholic.  Many have left, and many others who continue with the Church find they are only able to do so with a host of mental reservations.

The recent efforts of the current Pope, Francis the First, illustrate the problem.  His world-astoun­ding interview, published on September 18, calling on the Church to return to gospel values and to stop “obsessing” over sexual issues, was met with near universal enthusiasm.  But many question what effect such sentiments will have on the Church institution past the excitement of the moment or, assuming the Pope sustains the spirit of his remarks by personal charisma, past his lifetime.

During the last 50 years the conservative reversal of the directions laid out by Vatican II were more than a matter of the personality preferences of the popes who ruled in those years.  They not only insisted on the validity of structures forged in ancient times by people whose historical mindset and cultural assumptions no longer exist, but those popes were also successful in appointing so many like-minded bishops and Cardinals (who alone elect the pope) that the entire “teaching authority,” the magisterium, now reflects those values.  The personal vision, energies and projects of Francis, the current pope, even if they run deeper than a mere personal style, are necessarily confined to the limitations of his individual human organism.  When he dies, the spirit he represents dies with him unless it is institutionalized in the modification of social structures.  We must be honest.  At this point there is no indication that Francis has any intention of doing that.

We Catholics understand this phenomenon quite well; we’ve been through it before.  We are living in an era when the ultra-sacred and, we were taught, “infallible” recommendations of an ecumenical council have been thoroughly disregarded and often eviscerated by the very authorities entrusted with their implementation.  Our disillusionment  quickly turned to cynicism when, on re-reading the texts more attentively, we realized that the Council itself had been very careful not to challenge the continuing validity of the structures of traditional Church teaching going back to ancient times.  In other words, the Council, prestigious as it was, like Pope Francis today, confined itself to recommendations that had no effect on doctrine.  We all know the result of that policy.  Despite the buck-stopping claim that the Council was the “voice of the Holy Spirit,” its recommendations were marginalized by the Vatican authorities whom “infallible dogmas” had intentionally placed beyond all control and accountability.  The Vatican apparatus trumped the “Holy Spirit” … effortlessly.  It wasn’t even a contest.  The “Holy Spirit” was no match for the entrenched power of the governance structures of the Church.  Francis’ charismatic “spirit” can hardly lay claim to a greater appeal than that evoked by an ecumenical council, and so he can hardly be expected to fare any better in a contest with those same ancient structures that continue to rule.

The comparison reveals the stark reality of life in a material universe.  “Spirit,” whether Francis’ or the Council’s, only lives in bodies — living human organisms.  If the Church structures that shape living organisms do not embody and evoke that spirit, the spirit dies.  It has to.  It’s the way things are.  The spirit of any individual, even the spirit of Jesus’ himself, was dependent upon “taking flesh” in human society and the structures that maintained it.  Francis’ “spirit” in like manner needs to take flesh in a living community of human organisms and the virtual structures that identify, sustain and protect it, or it will die.

The “re-prioritizing” that was the point of Francis’ interview should never have been necessary if the correct priorities had been maintained.  How did it happen that they weren’t?  Clearly the fault lies with the structures themselves which are claimed to protect Catholic values through the millennia.  Their very purpose was to insure identity … precisely to prevent the loss of perspective and the distortions of inverted priorities.  If the priorities were so lost that the Pope needed to scold the entire “teaching authority” for “obsessing” over the wrong things, then clearly, unless you want to make the absurd claim that all those men are morally corrupt, it is the structures themselves that are dysfunctional — inimical or irrelevant to the spirit of Jesus’ life and message, and they must be overhauled and in some cases eliminated altogether.

The “spirit” of Jesus that Francis is calling forth obviously has not been accurately identified and adequately protected by these structures inherited from ancient times.  His “spirit” in other words, does not share the mindset which the traditional structures create in individual Catholics.  And unless the structures evolve and change … go through a metanoia every bit as penetrating and transformative as that which pride-filled, selfish individuals pass through when they “convert” from serving their false selves to serving LIFE … the false priorities which those structures encourage or tolerate will reassert themselves in short order.  They will continue to exercise their deforming power and subvert priorities as they always have.

Those who have been brainwashed into thinking the Church will be automatically protected from error are more than deluded.  For the very delusion harbors the seeds of self-destruction.  It encourages churchmen to believe their structures are eternal and their authority is a sacred right; they run the risk of a self-idolatry and a worship of power that is the complete antithesis of the message of Jesus.  What, after all, is the obsessive condemnation of the sexual vagaries of others but the flip-side of self-righteous self-projection.  What is the root of the bishops’ cover-up of predator priests but the attempt to maintain social prestige with the appearance of “holiness” while sacrificing the safety of children and refusing to admit the truth of their dysfunctional structures to the world — and to themselves.  There is more than human failure here; there is also an insidious  doctrine that falsely claims the Church is a “divine” institution authorized to teach the entire world and run by men who rule by divine right.  These anti-gospel structures must be derogated if priorities are to be set straight again.

Francis is only an individual human being, no less dependent on the virtualities of human society than Jesus was for the diffusion and perdurance of his message.  If the things Francis is talking about are not concretized in the structural changes needed to sustain them, nothing will change … and the ephemeral nature of his charisma could actually have a subversive effect; for once people realize that the Church is structurally incapable of changing its structures, and that even the charisma of a pope is powerless against it, they might lose all hope for reform.  The very structures that need changing are the ones that dogmatically (and allegedly “infallibly”) preclude the possibility of change.  It is the quintessential “catch-22.”  Catholic identity has been wed to these claims to exclusivity and unchallengeable power guaranteed by divine infallibility for more than a thousand years.  It has become clear that the spirit of Jesus and Catholic claims to preeminence as defined and protected by the dogmas and laws of the Church are mutually incompatible — they cannot live in the same organism.

A choice, therefore, will have to be made between them.  But it won’t be the first time.  Unfortunately, the fact that a Catholic Church with false priorities — so indicted by the pope himself — is still with us after all this time and so many attempts at reform, tells us that when confronted with the chance for conversion, the “teaching authority” of the Church has always preferred “tradition:” the bludgeon of imperial domination over the healing power of Jesus’ spirit of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

History does not bode well for what will result from this Pope’s charisma … unless he changes those structures.