Tuesday, May 30, 2006

“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”

News from Minnesota: Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Catholics and their families and friends are being encouraged to attend the noon Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Pentecost Sunday, June 4.

As Brian McNeill, coordinator of the Minneapolis-based Rainbow Sash Alliance, notes:

This will be the sixth year that Twin Cities GLBT Catholics have joined their sisters and brothers for Eucharist on Pentecost at the Cathedral wearing the Rainbow Sash. Although criticized by some, most notably Archbishop Flynn, as a symbol of protest, the Rainbow Sash is actually a symbol of celebration. On the day when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit, GLBT Catholics put on the Rainbow Sash to praise and thank God for the gift of their GLBT sexuality. Many remember when Dr. David Pence and his group, Ushers of the Eucharist, blocked the aisles of the Cathedral to prevent Rainbow Sash wearers from receiving communion. After consulting with the liturgical authorities at the Vatican, Archbishop Flynn has opted to agree with Dr. Pence’s criticism. On Pentecost 2005, all those wearing the Rainbow Sash at the Cathedral were denied communion. We hope and pray that the archbishop will have a change of heart in 2006.

Being in Australia until early August, I obviously won’t be able to join my friends – both GLBT and straight – in donning a Rainbow Sash and participating in the Pentecost celebration at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

I did participate in the Mass last year, and was denied communion by the presiding priest (see My Rainbow Sash Experience). Such an experience compelled me to contemplate the following questions:

Despite being refused the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal, were Rainbow Sash wearers really denied the presence of Christ?

What does our Catholic tradition actually say about the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic experience?

Can one be denied the bread and wine and yet still experience the transforming presence of Christ?

Can anyone really deny us the real presence of Christ?

These questions (and others) are explored by author and scholar Garry Wills in his book
Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday, 2000), from which the following is excerpted.


“Receive what you are, the Body of Christ”

Reflections on the Eucharist by Garry Wills

What would a Christian priest have done in the original eucharistic meals? It’s hard to imagine any disciple taking on the role of Jesus as his dramatic representation (eikon). (1) Did the disciples reenact the Last Supper, with one of them playing the role of Jesus? If so, did the priest not eat or drink the bread and wine himself? It is hard to imagine Jesus saying that bread and wine were his body and blood and then eating his own body, drinking his own blood. (2) Where did the playacting aspect of this ceremony end? If the priest played the role of Jesus, did someone else play that of Judas, or of the “beloved disciple” who leaned on Jesus’ breast? If the priest has some magic words to say in the persona of Jesus, why do the words of consecration come down to us in different versions in the New Testament and early Christian writings?

Since it is the Spirit, acting through the whole community, that consecrates, Western theologians are more and more agreeing with Eastern ones that the actual consecrating words are the call (epiklēsis) on the Spirit to “come upon these gifts and make them holy,” not the words quoted from the Last Supper. (3) In fact, the words of Jesus, “Take this and eat, it is my body,” are, on the face of them, words of distribution, which probably followed on his own prayer to the Father, which were the true consecrating words at the Last Supper. As Bernard Häring says: “It is not we priests who consecrate, such that what was bread becomes the presence of Christ. This mystery takes place on the occasion of epiklēsis by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (4) Even if one does not accept this interpretation of the sacrament, it is clear that the Spirit’s presence in the community is what consecrates, so all those stories of priests changing bread and wine with a magic formula are nonsense. They have no such magic, and the Spirit would not act apart from the community.

Since the Spirit consecrates within the community, if one person presides at the Eucharist, it is simply as the community’s representative, not as Christ’s. The first letter of Peter (2:5) refers to Christians as “living stones assembled into a spiritual temple, formed into a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices.” That is the way, early in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch – usually the first witness called for a belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist – talks of the community. Instead of being fenced off from the altar, the faithful are the altar, just as their flesh is the temple: “You sustain God in you, the altar in you, Christ in you, and holiness in you . . . Guard your flesh as God’s temple.” (5) It is more the faithful who become the body and blood of Christ than bread and wine do.

Within the congregation there is “a union of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ.” (6) The faithful are “created again in faith, which is the Lord’s flesh, and love, which is Jesus Christ’s blood.” (7) It makes no sense to form a sacred area away from the faithful, who are the real altars and temples and bearers of Christ’s flesh and blood. They are not distant from the mystery. They are the mystery. For Ignatius, the Eucharist was the full realization of that “one-ing” (henōsis) among themselves he urges on all the communities he addresses.

Almost three centuries later, Augustine was still talking of the faithful as the stuff that is transformed by the Eucharist. He never mentions (any more than the New Testament did, or Ignatius did) the power of the priest to consecrate. He says it is the faithful recipients who make the body of Christ present by becoming it.

Over and over Augustine places the validity of the sacrament in the recipient’s unity with God and each other, not in any preceding words or magic of the priest. He denied that Christ’s risen physical body could be in more than one place. When Christ is said to be in several different places, it is the members of his body in the Christian community that are referred to. (8)

Augustine rejects the idea that teeth and chewing and swallowing make one receive the body of Christ. (9) Augustine says that we cannot take Christ into us. “The symbol is received, it is eaten, it disappears – but can Christ’s body disappear, Christ’s church disappear, Christ’s members disappear? Far from it.” (10) We must be taken into Christ’s body, not he into ours: “We abide in him when we are his members, and he abides in us when we are his temple. And for us to become his members, unity must bind us to each other.” (11) The Eucharistic transformation is, for Augustine, a change of the community into a single thing, and the symbolism that he finds in the Eucharist is not of the physical body of Christ but of the mystical union of his members under the sign of bread, made a unit from many grains of wheat, and wine, made a unit from many grapes.

So clearly is the bread a sign of the unity of Christians that it was customary in Augustine’s time to send some of the bread left over from the eucharistic meal to other communities, expressing a general oneness. (12) That would never happen today, when people think the host could be desecrated if handled by anyone but a priest. Candles were not carried alongside the eulogion (as it was called). The only effect of an unbeliever’s eating the bread is that he or she does not become a member of the body of Christ. There is no actual body in the host to bleed or be abused.

It has scandalized many Catholics that, as the Augustinian scholar F. van der Meer had reluctantly to admit, in all Augustine’s hundreds of sermons delivered at the Eucharistic meal, “he does not speak of a real presence” in the bread and wine. (13)

Augustine in the fourth century, just as Ignatius in the second, would never have thought that reverence to the Eucharist involved removing its mystery from the midst of the believers. They would not have fenced off the altar, since the people were the altar, just as they were the bread lying on it.

[Augustine] wanted no adventitious mystification. He did not wear altar vestments at the Eucharistic meal, but his everyday clothes. He had no taste for pomp. He melted down the precious metals of communion vessels to ransom prisoners. His fellows in Christ were the real vessels of Christ’s body. He agreed with Saint Paul, who said that mystery for its own sake, like speaking in tongues that no one could interpret, was not a service to the community. . . Yet the priest muttering in Latin before modern communities was in effect just speaking to himself and God. The original language of the Mass was whatever tongue the community spoke – Aramaic in Jerusalem, Greek in the diaspora, Latin only after a while in Rome. At the Last Supper Jesus did not speak in some exotic tongue his disciples could not understand.

The need to keep Latin as a mark of caste was demonstrated at the Second Vatican Council, where bishops could not express themselves spontaneously or with subtlety because they were forced to use Latin, yet many begged to keep the dead language that sealed them off from the laity in their church rituals. It was most telling that Cardinal Spellman of New York got up to defend the use of Latin, but spoke it so barbarously that people could not understand him.

Vatican officials feared change in the liturgy for a very real and practical reason. If you take away the magical aura from the Mass, the existence of a priestly caste with ritual purity is hard to justify. If a privileged entrée to sanctuaries from which the laity are excluded is gone, what happens to the rules of Leviticus? That is why Pope Paul VI was forced back on weaker and weaker arguments for preservation of the caste’s celibacy. He tried to say that asceticism is itself a witness to the purity of a person’s dedication. That was true of the desert fathers. But they did not minister to a community – they went off on their spiritual adventure to avoid the duties and entanglements of the priests. Besides, their asceticism was part of an integral life pattern. They fasted, punished their bodies, abstained from company and entertainments and pleasures. The modern priest is not in general terms an ascetic. An ascetic like the Dalai Lama does impress people by the monkish discipline he observes. He is not only celibate. He does not drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, play games, go to the movies.

Priests may today be celibate; but – with some honorable exceptions – they usually maintain a comfortable life style, especially compared with the poor they profess to be serving.

We all know priests with refined tastes in food and drink, nice cars, expensive stereos. If priests are so ready to indulge in other pleasures, then why is celibacy their one abstention? It is not the witness of asceticism in a broader sense that can justify this, but only the sneaking, no longer confessed heritage of the Stoics and Leviticus that makes sex of itself somehow unclean and debasing. The Pope can no longer say that, but his actions reveal his instincts in the matter.

Pope Paul VI says that the priest should resemble Christ. Well, where is Christ to be found on earth these days? A theologian priest I know tells the community when he preaches that he comes to Mass to find Christ, and that he finds him by looking out at the face before him. The Christ to be resembled is there, in the members of his body. That man over there is Christ. So is this woman over here. So, at that moment, are we all. This priest also urges the Augustinian formula when he gives out communion: “Receive what you are, the body of Christ.”

1. Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, paragraph 31.
2. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, translated by Norman Perrin (Fortress Press, 1977), p. 212.
3. Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, translated by David Smith (Crossroads, 1997), Vol. III, p. 233.
4. Bernard Haring, Priesthood Imperiled (Triumph Books, 1996), p. 131.
5. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 9:1; Letter to the Philippians 7:2.
6. Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians 1:1. Also, Letter to the Trallians, Introduction.
7. Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians 8:1.
8. Augustine, Interpreting John’s Gospel 30.2, 28.2.
9. Ibid., 26.12.
10. Augustine, Sermon 227 (PL 38.1247)
11. Augustine, Interpreting John’s Gospel 27.6.
12. Augustine, Letters 24.6, 31.9, 32.3.
13. F. van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop, translated by Brian Battershaw and G.R. Lamb (Sheed and Ward, 1961), p. 284.

My Rainbow Sash Experience

A 2005 change in St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocesan policy has meant that a number of GLBT people and others have been denied participation in the Eucharist – the ritual meal in which the Catholic community expresses its identity with Jesus’ life, death, and rising.

The reason for this denial? The individuals in question (myself included) approached the altar wearing a rainbow sash – a symbol that simply proclaims that its wearer is (or knows and affirms) a GLBT person who embraces and celebrates their sexuality as a sacred gift.

I wrote the following commentary after I attended the 2005 Pentecost Sunday mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. An edited version of which was published in the May 18 edition of
Pulse of the Twin Cities.


My Rainbow Sash Experience

By Michael J. Bayly

My experience as part of the Rainbow Sash action at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Pentecost Sunday 2005 was actually quite a positive one. I felt totally in communion with those around me and with God – even though the priest presiding at the mass, the Rev. Michael Skluzacek, denied bread and wine to all who were wearing the sash – myself included.

My friend Eduard and I arrived a half-hour before mass started. We joined the other Rainbow Sashers at the cathedral’s side entrance and donned our sashes in the late morning sunshine. To the sound of voices singing “We Shall Overcome,” Eduard and I entered the cathedral and sat toward the front with my friend Kathleen. All around us were people in Rainbow Sashes – well over 100. It was the largest Rainbow Sash event ever, according to Brian McNeill, the coordinator of the Rainbow Sash Alliance and president of Dignity/Twin Cities.

The mass began and I found myself amazed at how the readings and hymns supported both why we had gathered at the cathedral on this day celebrating the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, and why we were wearing the Rainbow Sash – the symbol of celebration of our God-given sexuality. One hymn had the following words: “Joined together as one body, knit together, we are one. We the church, God’s chosen body . . . joined together by the Spirit, every person brings a gift. Every life is full of merit . . . Joined together, all-embracing, yet our separate selves we bring; on our hearts our God is tracing words of love that make us sing.”

When communion time came, Fr. Skluzacek reiterated the archbishop’s request that those wearing the Rainbow Sash remove them before receiving communion “as a sign of reverence for the Lord and a desire for unity.” I found myself wondering how wearing a multi-colored sash could possibly threaten either ‘the Lord’ or Christian unity. The denying of communion as a way of protesting and punishing those you disagree with seemed much more disrespectful and divisive.

Fr. Skluzacek continued his pre-communion warning – noting that if anyone did attempt to receive communion wearing the sash, they would not be allowed to participate in the Eucharistic meal, but instead receive simply a blessing. No one around me made a move to remove their sash.

When it was my turn to approach Fr. Skluzacek, I did so and received his blessing. I then looked him in the eyes and said, “I realize the situation you’re in, and I forgive you.” I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was simply following orders. Perhaps if it was up to him, he would give communion to all of us. Perhaps he lacked the courage to follow his conscience and defy such orders.

Interestingly, I think everyone wearing the sash made some comment to the Eucharistic minister they approached to receive communion. My friend Mary, for instance, took the hand raised in blessing of one minister and said, “Shame on you!”

Later she told me how appalled she was that they would consider their blessing a substitute for what they were denying. “It was so incredibly pompous!” she said.

In retrospect, it was quite amazing: Over a hundred people speaking from that holiest of places, their conscience, and making their feelings and beliefs known to the hierarchy at the most sacred time of the mass.

How appropriate for Pentecost! And how unprecedented! Have the members of the church hierarchy ever before experienced such a loving yet firm challenge?

Who could have foretold that the banning of communion to Rainbow Sash wearers would initiate such an outpouring of the Spirit!

Such confounding paradox, the Bible contends, is often a sign of the presence and action of God.

Such thoughts, however, were to come to me later. For the moment, I found myself returning to my seat having been denied communion – at least by a priest. For as it turned out, I was to receive communion that morning.

Back in our pew, Eduard gently touched my arm. Turning, I saw that he was reverently holding half a host in his hand. He broke it and gave a portion of it to me. I in turn broke my piece and gave half to my friend Kathleen.

Later I discovered that someone without a sash had shared the host they had received with Eduard – who was wearing a sash. What this person (and apparently other non-sash wearers) did seems to me to be what communion is all about. I found this loving and sharing action very inspiring and hopeful. It would be something Jesus would do – and did do through the actions of these people.

Here were “ordinary Catholics” taking to heart Christ’s call to be a “priestly people.” I later heard that other non-sash wearers refused to receive communion as a way of standing in loving solidarity with those who were wearing the Rainbow Sash.

At the end of the mass a group of Rainbow Sash wearers left their pews and tagged onto the end of the recessional as it made its way to the back of the church. Usually this recessional is comprised of ordained ministers and other “official” folks. It brought a smile to my face to see GLBT people, their parents, and loved ones – all adorned in the Rainbow Sash – taking the initiative and proclaiming their own unique authority and leadership.

As my friends and I were leaving the cathedral, various people – ushers and parishioners – thanked us and offered words of encouragement. This too felt nurturing and empowering.

In short, I felt renewed and re-energized as a result of my participation in the 2005 Pentecost Sunday mass at the cathedral. I’ve come to realize that my Rainbow Sash experience was in fact a Eucharistic experience, as I and others experienced God’s loving transformation and empowerment mediated through those gathered in both solidarity and support of what the Rainbow Sash represents.

Together we are the Risen Body of Christ, alive with the Spirit of awareness and compassion, and compelled by the good news of the Gospels to joyfully and courageously speak of our experience of God in our lives and relationships.

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on the Primacy of Conscience
The Question of an "Informed" Catholic Conscience
"Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ"
Celebrating Our Sancifying Truth
Who Gets to Be Called Catholic - and Why?
Comprehending the "Fullness of Truth"

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

I finally saw The Da Vinci Code last Wednesday. I have to say it’s a pretty ordinary film. The suspense and excitement of the novel simply doesn’t translate well to film – or at least to this film.

As to the controversy that some find in the film’s treatment of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I have to say it’s all somewhat of a ‘storm in a tea cup.’ The Da Vinci Code is so obviously a work of fiction – and an extremely far-fetched one at that.

But what of the film's portrayal of the Catholic Church? Well, as a member of the GLBT community I can only say one thing to those upset by the film’s negative portrayal of certain aspects of Catholicism: Welcome to my world!

For decades, gay and lesbian people have been portrayed stereotypically and negatively by Hollywood. Check out the documentary The Celluloid Closet to see what I mean.

Thankfully, things are turning around – largely because GLBT people have been more open about who they are and how they really live their lives. Such openness is ensuring that false stereotypes are slowly but surely being dispelled. Maybe those who are jumping up and down about the negative portrayal of Catholics should quit playing the victim and learn from the example of gay folks!

Then again, I’m very aware that there is more than one way of being Catholic, and it should not be surprising that those ways that have betrayed Catholicism's rich diversity and denied it's ongoing development by the embracement of doctrinal fundamentalism and life-denying legalism, are often (and indeed, should be) subject to critical evaluation.

I don't believe Dan Brown (the author of The Da Vinci Code) or Ron Howard (the director of the film version of the novel) are interested in such critical evaluation. And to think they are is to take The Da Vinci Code far too seriously. That's not to say that this particular creative endeavor is above critical analysis, it's just that a lot of the criticism of the film by religious folks seems to be both misdirected and overblown.

One of the most insightful (and on target) critiques of Brown's book, and by extension, Howard's film, was offered recently by Sr. Christine Schenk (left) in the May 12 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. Schenk is the director of FutureChurch, a national coalition of parish-centered Catholics working for full participation of all Catholics in the life of the church.

Schenk begins her commentary by stressing that “Dan Brown’s popular fictional bestseller has actually done a disservice to the historical Mary of Magdala and other women leaders in the early church.” Elaborating on this point, Schenk observes that “while the book paints a compelling portrait of the underlying unity of male and female, it ultimately subverts women’s leadership by focusing on the fiction of Mary of Magdala’s marital status rather than the fact of her leadership as the primary witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unfortunately this reinforces gender bias that women are only important in relationship to the men in their lives.”

Later in her article, Schenk explores the findings of epigraphical scholar Ute Eisen, as documented in Eisen’s book Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, and concludes that “[the] evidence indicates that there were single women and married women whose husbands were not officeholders who were given the title of ‘priest,’ as priesthood was understood at the time.”

Schenk then turns her attention to Mary Magdalene, noting that “many mistakenly associate the penitent woman sinner with Mary of Magdala, making her a prostitute even though there is no historical or biblical basis for the claim.”

“Neither is there any basis,” says Schenk, “for Mr. Brown’s Da Vinci tale that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus. This idea is based on a 12th-century myth. The contention that ancient writers didn’t mention Jesus’ marriage and offspring for fear of Jewish persecution doesn’t really hold up because John’s Gospel and much of the apocryphal literature were written after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, when there would have been nothing to fear from Jewish authorities. If Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child, it is improbable that such texts would have omitted such important facts, especially since both portray her in considerable detail as the primary witness to the resurrection and a female leader who, in many ways, understood Jesus’ mission better than the male disciples.”

Elsewhere, Schenk notes that “atypically, Mary of Magdala was named according to the town she was from, not by her relationship to a man. Biblical scholars believe this indicates she was a wealthy woman of independent means who, with Joanna and Susanna, helped underwrite Jesus’ Galilean mission.”

Schenk also reminds us that “all four Gospels show [Mary of Magdala] leading the group of women who accompanied Jesus through his crucifixion and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection. Biblical scholars see this as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had they been fabricated, women would never have been named as witnesses in a culture that did not accept their legal testimony.

Schenk concludes her piece with a stinging yet totally appropriate rebuke of the Catholic Church’s official stance on the issue of women and leadership: “Jesus’ inclusion of women in his itinerant Galilean discipleship and their prominent role as witnesses to the Resurrection provides compelling explanation for women’s experience of themselves as called and chosen to proclaim the Gospel and exercise leadership alongside their brothers in the early church. Unfortunately, our church has yet to catch up to the vision of Jesus, who loved, empowered and accepted the ministry of women but was probably not married to one.”

“Rather than speculate on whether Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus,” says Schenk, “it would be better to imitate her generosity and courage in accompanying a condemned political prisoner through a torturous death and her faith in proclaiming the Resurrection, God’s own affirmation of all the values for which Jesus suffered and died.”

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy

Coastal Views

On Sunday, my parents and I drove north from Port Macquarie to the coastal towns of Crescent Head and South West Rocks. The views (as you can see) were quite spectacular.

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Remembering Rev. Harvey Egan

Earlier this week, friends in Minnesota informed me of the death of Rev. Harvey Egan.

As noted by reporter Glenn Howatt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Harvey “transformed” the south Minneapolis parish of
St. Joan of Arc into the vibrant community it is today.

"Egan was installed as St. Joan of Arc pastor in 1967,” writes Howatt, “and under the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he created a contemporary mass that was conducted in the church’s gymnasium. ‘That was the time to make up your mind, whether you were going to go with old church or new,’ Egan said in a 2003 interview posted on the church’s website. I knew what Vatican II said and I knew this was the right way to go.’”

Howatt also notes how in 1978, Egan invited feminist Gloria Steinem to speak from the church pulpit. The event, Howatt reports, “drew a public reprimand from the Archdiocese,” which said Egan exercised poor judgment in inviting Steinem, a supporter of women’s reproductive rights, to deliver a sermon.

Yet far from being detrimental to St. Joan of Arc, the controversy served to bring into clearer focus the values and ministry of the community: “[We] believe in women and their participation in the liturgy,” said Egan in 2003. “[We] believe in contemporary themes and their position in the liturgy.”

The Star Tribune notes that “Egan’s ministry was also underscored by opposition to war, poverty and racism,” and that “while he weathered rebukes at anti-war protests and calls for his recall by some conservative Catholics, St. Joan of Arc grew during and after his tenure.”

Harvey believed that activism was the antidote to the stagnation that overt emphasis on traditionalism inevitably leads. “Where Jesus was doesn’t interest me. It’s where he is now that I want to find,” he told the Star Tribune in 1986 when he retired. “I want to see the action now. The message of the resurrection is that love of Christ is alive and in operation here and now.”

Although I have connections with St. Joan of Arc, have facilitated collaborations between the parish and the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the organization I serve as executive coordinator, and have even delivered a sermon at St. Joan’s, I unfortunately never had the honor of meeting and conversing with Harvey Egan.

Yet reading about Harvey and reflecting on his words, I am reminded of Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and his observations on contemporary Catholicism, and in particular, his understanding of “Kingdom Catholics.”

In his April 2006 address at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, Radcliffe identified two types of Catholics – Kingdom Catholics and Communion Catholics. According to Radcliffe, the church needs both.

Here’s what Radcliffe has to say about the former: “By Kingdom Catholics, I mean those of us who have a deep sense of the church as the pilgrim people of God on the way to the kingdom. The theologians who have been central for this tradition have been people like the Jesuit Karl Rahner, and the Dominicans Edward Schillebeeckx and Gustavo Gutierrez. This tradition stresses openness to the world (finding the presence of the Holy Spirit working outside the church), freedom, and the pursuit of justice.”

St. Joan of Arc parish certainly embodies this particular way of being Catholic.

By “Communion Catholics,” Radcliffe means those who came to feel that after the Second Vatican Council, there was an “urgent need to rebuild the inner life of the church.” According to Radcliffe, such Catholics “went with theologians like Hans von Balthasar and the then Joseph Ratzinger. Their theology often stressed Catholic identity, was wary of too hearty an embrace of modernity, and stressed the cross.”

My sense is that many of St. Joan of Arc's critics embrace this particular tradition, this particular way of being Catholic.

Radcliffe is quick to point out that “all this is a bit of a caricature,” yet “most of us will feel some attraction to both of these traditions, [though] will probably feel a primary identification with one or the other.”

In accounting for the deep divisions within contemporary Catholicism, Radcliffe suggests that “both Kingdom and Communion Catholics are suffering from what Mindy Thomson Fullilove calls ‘root shock’ in her new book of the same title. She was describing the traumatic experience for black communities of enduring the destruction of their neighborhoods. Millions of black people found not just their houses destroyed in the name of urban development, but their communities dispersed. So root shock is the loss of home. Fullilove writes that ‘root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem . . . Root shock undermines trust, increases anxiety about letting loved ones out of one’s sight, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack. Root shock leaves people chronically cranky, barking distinctive, croaky complaints that their world was abruptly taken away.’”

Says Radcliffe: “One of the effects of root shock is that you want to live with people like you. You become suspicious and nervous about people who are different. I argue that all Catholics, especially those in the United States, are suffering from root shock.

"Both Kingdom and Communion Catholics find their sense of being at home in the church threatened and undermined. Kingdom Catholics were filled with joy by the [Second] Vatican Council, and felt themselves to be on the way to a deeply renewed and less clerical church, which would be a sign of hope and liberation. But as the years went by, they often felt disappointed and betrayed. The church was not turning out to be the home they had hoped for. And Communion Catholics also felt betrayed. They endured the loss of beloved traditions, ways of celebrating the liturgy, a sense of a Catholic world. Nuns threw away their habits, and it seemed that you could believe and do whatever you liked. And so both blamed the other side for destroying our home. And this produced just the anger and insecurity that Fullilove described. Each side blames the other for their exile, and that produces anger and frustration.”

And what is the remedy for such a divisive situation? According to Radcliffe, the first thing that we must do is to “get some feel of the loss of home that ‘the other side’ feels. We must get some sense of their pain in exile.”

Second, we need to understand that the church needs both parties if it is to flourish. Radcliffe notes that, interestingly, “both understanding of what it means to find a home in the church are present at the Last Supper.”

He observes that “the sharing of the bread is centripetal . . . It gathers us into the community of Christ’s friends and disciples. It is a sign of that interior life of the church which is so crucial for Communion Catholics. But the cup of wine is centrifugal. It expresses that outward thrust which is important for Kingdom Catholics, the reaching out to all humanity, ready to find the Holy Sprit working in all people.”

Thus, says Radcliffe, “the central sacrament of the church, the sign of our shared home, has then this double rhythm. It gathers in and reaches out. It is like breathing. We breathe in and we breathe out. If we just emptied our lungs or just filled them, we would die! We need both if we are to live, just as the church needs a fruitful and living tension between Kingdom and Communion Catholics. I believe that it is a tension which is present in the very name of our church, Roman Catholic. ‘Roman’ stresses the clear identity that we have, in communion with the see of Rome, an identifiable community, with its particular ways of talking and praying. ‘Catholic’ stresses the outreach for what is universal, and which can be impatient with too secure and fixed identity. This tension has always been present in the church . . . It is present today still. We need to live this tension happily and fruitfully, and not as a battle to the death. And that means that we have to dialogue.”

I have a feeling that Harvey would agree.

To read Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow's piece on the Rev. Harvey Egan, click here.

Good News from Minnesota

Earlier this week I received the following message from OutFront Minnesota – the state’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) support and advocacy group:

“Under the Minnesota Constitution, the Legislature was required to end its regular session on Monday, May 22. Bills not approved by that date have failed. And this year, for the third year in a row, the Legislature has adjourned WITHOUT approving a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would bar any form of legal recognition for same-gender couples and their families in Minnesota.

“As a result of our community’s work, Minnesota joins five other states which have defeated similar proposals. There’s a lot to be proud of in this outcome. It’s time to celebrate!”

This is good news, indeed. And I’m honored to have been part of the efforts to defeat the proposed Minnesota marriage amendment. In particular, I’m proud of the work that the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) did to defeat the amendment.

As I noted (as executive coordinator of CPCSM) at our May 8 Annual Community Meeting, both CPCSM and its Catholic Rainbow Parents initiative played an important role in facilitating a proactive and ongoing response to the proposed amendment – primarily by bringing together a range of faith groups to counter the November 2005 “Pastors’ Summit” – a gathering of fundamentalist Christians, including some Catholic priests, that sought to instruct pastors in ways of supporting and promoting the amendment within their congregations.

CPCSM also hosted a number of other events that educated Catholics about the full ramifications of the amendment for GLBT people and their families. One of these, a March 20, 2006 panel discussion at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church entitled “Putting a Human Face on the Marriage Amendment Issue,” drew a record crowd for a CPCSM-sponsored event.

The e-mail message from OutFront Minnesota, as well as reminding us of our victory in defeating the amendment, also asks: “Does this mean we’re done?” Clearly it doesn’t. For as OutFront notes: “Those who have spent the past three years promoting this harmful amendment [including, tragically, the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis] have made it clear that they intend to use it – and GLBT families – as an issue in this fall’s campaign.

“If we ever hope to see a time when our community is not the legislature’s perennial punching bag, we need to identify and support candidates for elective office who are advocates for fairness and justice for all Minnesotans, including GLBT Minnesotans.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Solitary Ramble

No, that's not a description of this blog (though perhaps it could be!). It's how I describe my recent exploration of several beaches within walking distance of my parents' home in Port Macquarie.

It was a beautiful morning as I headed south along the shoreline. The tide was out and apart from various types of birds (gulls, cormorants, swallows, and honeyeaters), I was alone in my early morning walk amidst the beauty of the Australian coastal landscape.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 ft.

One of the QANTAS in-flight movies I watched while enroute to Sydney from Los Angeles was Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova, starring Heath Ledger.

I was drawn to this movie primarily because it was filmed in Venice – the city I most admired and enjoyed when in Europe last year.

The villain of this decidedly lightweight retelling of the legend of the famed Venetian lover, is a Vatican inquisitor played by Jeremy Irons. Watching the antics of this particular character brought to mind numerous other films that feature (often much more realistic) characterizations of cruel and despotic Vatican officials. I was also reminded of how some Catholics find such portrayals highly offensive – a reaction which, to be honest, I’ve always found rather perplexing. Don’t these people know the history of their own Church?

True, it’s not been all bad. The Catholic Church has been responsible for great good in people’s lives. Yet this has more often than not been in spite of, not because of leadership from the Vatican.

A work of “critical loyalty”

One of the best books I can recommend for a comprehensive yet succinct overview of the history of Catholicism is Hans Küng’s The Catholic Church: A Short History.

Publishers’ Weekly notes that “woven through Küng’s mostly readable account is a consistent call for the abolition of the doctrine of papal infallibility, one of the stances that got him into trouble with church authorities two decades ago. Küng also uses his book to criticize the church's present efforts to safeguard its teachings through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His 1979 censure, he says, was a ‘personal experience of the Inquisition,’ yet he claims to remain faithful to the church in what he calls ‘critical loyalty.’”

In the book’s introduction Küng makes it clear that he has written his history of the church as someone involved in it. By his own acknowledgement, he “takes the side of those who became victims.” Despite this, Küng maintains that “personal commitment and matter-of-fact objectivity can as well be combined in a history of the church as they can in the history of a nation.”

Küng observes that the Catholic Church is “a controversial church, subject to extremes of admiration and attack.” He notes that “beyond question,” the Catholic Church is a history of success: It’s the oldest, numerically the strongest, and probably also the most powerful representative of Christianity in the world. Aspects of it are greatly admired.

He also notes that the standing of the church has declined since the time of the Second Vatican Council – resulting in it “being attacked more than ever in some quarters.”

He also concedes that the church is largely itself responsible for this decline, noting that “scarcely any of the great institutions in our democratic age deal in such a despicable way with critics and those of other views in their own ranks, nor does any discriminate so much against women – by prohibiting contraceptives, the marriage of priests, and the ordination of women. None polarizes society and politics worldwide to such a degree by rigid positions in matters of abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, positions always invested with an aura of infallibility, as if they were the will of God himself.”

Concludes Küng: “In view of the apparent inability on the part of the Catholic Church to correct and reform itself, is it not understandable that at the beginning of the third Christian millennium the more or less benevolent indifference widely shown to the church around fifty years ago has turned into hatred, indeed public hostility?”

Two extremes

Küng describes two extremes when it comes to viewing and understanding the history of the church. One of these sees the church as a great tree, which, while continuing to bear rotting fruit and to put forth dead branches, can still be understood to be in a process of permanent development, unfolding and becoming perfect.

At the other end of the spectrum is the opinion that in the church’s 2000-year history no organic process of maturing can be detected, but rather something more like a criminal history.

In response to the first extreme, Küng poses the following question: “Supposing that there is organic growth, are there not also within the history of the Catholic Church quite unorganic, abnormal, completely nonsensical, false developments, for which the church’s official representatives are themselves responsible? Despite all the grandiose talk of progress, all in all are there not also terrifying lapses, for which the popes are anything but blameless?”

In response to the second extreme, Küng asks: “Does a fixation on the negative side do justice to the history of the Catholic Church?” He also observes that “Those who deliberately step in all the puddles should not complain too loudly about how bad the road is.”

For Küng, “neither an idealizing and romanticized history of the church nor one filled with hatred and denunciation can be taken seriously. Something else is called for.” He is adamant that like the history of any institution, the history of the Catholic Church is a checkered one, and that in the final analysis, any theology must, insofar as it claims to be Christian, ultimately be judged by the criterion of what is Christian.

And what is the criterion of what is Christian? According to Küng it’s “the original Christian message, the gospel, indeed the original figure of Christianity: the concrete, historical Jesus of Nazareth, who for Christians is the Messiah.”


Some have observed that the book is “more a critical history of the papacy, i.e., the church as institution, rather than a history of the church as the People of God. Steve Harris at Amazon.com, for instance, notes that Küng’s book is a “diamond sharp assault on the papacy as it currently exists. And the bull's eye is infallibility.”

“After reading Kung's argument," says Harris, "I come away thinking there is simply no intellectual or spiritual leg on which to support this doctrine. To support it is to deny having a brain, and arguably, a soul. A good exercise after reading [Küng’s book] would be to run to The Brothers Karamazov, and read ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter. Dostoevksy could see through the murk of argument, to the spiritual heart of the matter. With the insistence on infallibility, there can be no Christ, in fact, it insures ultimately, a rejection of Christ.”

Harsh words, indeed. But not that far removed from those of Pope John XXII who, in 1324 (when the idea of papal infallibility and the irreformability of papal decisions was first propagated by an eccentric Franciscan, Petrus Olivi), condemned it as the work of the devil, “the father of all lies.” It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, Küng reminds us, that the idea was “warmed up again . . . by conservative publicists and popes.” (p.121).

An “age of royal absolutism”

The events of the film Casanova, of course, take place before this time – in the late 1700s. What was the rationale for the Church’s despotic tendencies at this time in history? Is the film’s (albeit, rather comical) portrayal of a Vatican inquisitor in any way accurate or justified?

In The Catholic Church: A Short History, Küng observes that the period of time from 1648 to 1789 was an “age of royal absolutism,” in which religion served to legitimate royal absolutism.

Notes Küng: “The Roman Catholic paradigm, which initially was so innovative in the Middle Ages, was increasingly being rigidified within a medieval straitjacket . . . Since Trent the church had increasingly shut itself up in the Roman Catholic bulwark, from which in subsequent centuries it attacked, with ancient weapons like condemnations, bans on books, excommunications, and suspensions, the ever more numerous enemies of the church . . . It had little success . . . the papacy found itself increasingly in the shadow of history.” (p.143)

In response to the era’s monumental shifts in science and philosophy, “the Catholic Church . . . became an institution characterized not so much by intellectual effort, empirical assimilation, and cultural competence as by defensiveness against all that was new.” (p.146)

With regard to figures of church leadership in the period, Küng observes that “the popes – apart from Benedict XIV – had sunk into insignificance and reacted to the challenge of the time only with stereotypes, sterile protests, and sweeping condemnations.”

Küng makes it clear that the Catholic hierarchy’s most desperate attempt to ward off the shifts and changes of the times (including such things as the concept of democracy) occurred at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) when the infallibility of the pope when speaking on matters of faith and morals was defined dogmatically.

Küng skillfully documents the various efforts to formalize and legitimize such a doctrine dating back to the eleventh century. For example, he discusses the Medieval use of forgeries to cement the notion of Roman primacy. Interestingly, as one critic has noted, “this chain did not necessarily have to lead to [the] doctrine [of papal infallibility]. Choices still have to be made – unfortunately, historically most of them have been the wrong ones.”

Yet Küng and others (myself included) remain hopeful that the renewing and transforming Spirit of God will never abandon the Church; that this Spirit continues to call the Church to reform and new life; and that there are growing numbers of people open to this Spirit and dedicated to its call.

So there you have it: reflections on papal infallibility and other expressions of religious imperialism within the Catholic Church, all of which were set in motion for me by a trans-Pacific in-flight movie! Who would have thought that watching fellow Aussie Heath Ledger gallivanting around Venice would have inspired such theological musings?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Passage to India

In the May 19, 2006 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Paul Wilkes has a fascinating account of his and and his wife's stay at the Kurisumala Ashram.

Located in southern India, the Kurisumala Ashram was founded in 1958 by Belgium Cistercian, John Mahieu, and Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine. Both men, says Wilkes, dreamed of forging a bond between East and West by “creating a community that would live the simplicity and poverty of primitive monasticism, while expressing the universality of monastic life by rooting the community in Hindu culture.”

I read Wilke’s article aboard a Northwest flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles – the first of three flights that would take me from Minnesota to my parents’ home in Port Macquarie, Australia. Tom Roberts, the editor of NCR notes in his editorial that Wilkes’s feature article is a “delicious read and no conventional tale.” He also recommends that one “find some quiet and some time to sit with it.” My flight from the Twin Cities to the West coast was a perfect time to read and reflect upon Wilke’s experiences in India.

One of the parts of the article that I found most interesting was the overview Wilkes provides of the history of Christianity in India. Following are excerpts from that particular section:

The Christian roots of this part of India go deep, far deeper than in some areas of the world more often considered ‘Christian.’ Tradition has it that the apostle St. Thomas established churches on the eastern and western coasts of Southern India in the year 52, at a time when Europe only knew primitive religions. A unique church developed, for centuries largely ignored by the West. The church in India owed more to the traditions, liturgies and customs of Syria and Persia than to the 'Latinizing' influences that helped regularize a fragmented Europe, a Western orientation that would eventually be transplanted to the Americas.

With the Portuguese colonization of the 17th and 18th centuries came one of the darker periods in Indian church history, when missionaries and bishops, with the tacit approval of Rome, preached and enforced European Catholicism, ruthlessly trying to root out rituals and practices considered much too native an expression of the ‘one, true faith.’ With the growing sense of ecumenism in the 1920s and 1930s, the Catholic Malankara Syrian church was again unified with Rome, its practices still warily regarded by many within the church.

On visits to India, Western monks and priests with an openness to probing different approaches to spirituality found a deep and ancient tradition of Hindu monasticism alongside a Christian liturgical and ritual life that burst the boundaries of anything they had experienced before. India was a cradle of monasticism, predating Christian monasticism by 1,000 years. Christian liturgies here offered rich evocations of both the temporal and the divine, using the familiar vernacular not the distancing Latin that was standard at the time. Pioneers like the French missionary Abbé J. Monchanin, and the French Benedictine Henri Le Saux established the Sachidananda Ashram, or Shantivanam, as it was popularly known in Southern India. It was here that Kurisumala’s founder, Mahieu, already formed through 20 years of monastic life at the Trappist abbey of Scourmont in Belgium, first glimpsed the possibility of a new kind of monastery, embedding a Cistercian way of life within the rich and ancient culture of India. Kurisumala – a combination of cruz, the Portuguese word for cross, and mala, the Dravidian word for mountain – was born.

Griffiths joined Mahieu at Kurisumala’s founding, but left after a few years to be the superior at Shantivanam. Mahieu would eventually take on the monastic name of Francis and the Hindu approbation of Acharya – meaning a spiritual mentor or master, akin to our ‘Reverend Father.’ The early years were trying as the first few aspirants at Kurisumala weathered monsoon rains in palm frond huts and tried to eke a living out of the mountaintop soil. They began to terrace the land to make it more productive, plant crops and dig a reservoir to irrigate during the dry season. Francis, who had met Gandhi years before in London, was determined to employ Gandhi’s imperative to make cows – sacred to the Hindus, but, as they aged and wandered freely, often a liability within this fragile economy – a useful asset. Kurisumala brought over two Jersey bulls from England and the ashram gradually developed into a model dairy farm and agricultural center, drawing into a cooperative local farmers and the poor and landless who came to settle nearby.

The community eventually grew to about 20, and that has been its approximate size throughout much of its life.

Although he had been given permission to leave his Belgian monastery, Father Francis was so far out of the mainstream of monastic and Indian life that he was free to shape a kind of community unknown and untried. Although the Trappist General Chapter had refused to sanction or even acknowledge Father Francis’ experimental community, he was determined to weave three seemingly disparate strands, a classic Benedictine-Cistercian spirituality, a simple Indian monastic lifestyle, and the rich Eastern liturgy he had come to appreciate. Many missionaries before him ‘adapted’ to local customs while retaining elements of Western lifestyle. Francis was determined to be fully inculturated, to live, think, and worship as an Indian, while retaining his Christian framework.

Another part of the article that I found particularly insightful was Wilkes’ concluding comments on his experiences at the Kurisumala Ashram.

For me, Kurisumala registered not so much as a demanding goal to be continually struggled for, but as a quiet standard to live by. Of how abundance – of affection, of worship, of community, of kindness – can, in the midst of seeming poverty and utter simplicity, prevail. Of the power of finding more by having less. Of deep happiness in both the most profound and the most mundane daily activities.

These monks, from a culture so different from ours, showed [my wife] Tracy and me that God continually infuses our lives with his presence – we only need to put aside our preconceptions and our alleged intellectual sophistication to experience it; that God speaks to us in mysterious ways at unexpected times in our lives; that God expresses [God]self with palpable, physical signs; and that holiness is so recklessly pervasive, so very, very ordinary.

To visit the Kurisumala web site, click here.

Above: Brother John, one of the monks at the Kurisumala
in Southern India. (Photo by Paul Wilkes)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Australia Bound

During the past few days as I’ve prepared to return to Australia for a 9-week visit, I’ve experienced some wonderful gatherings with friends here in the Twin Cities.

I look forward to staying in touch with you all via e-mail and The Wild Reed!



Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An Unholy Alliance in Iraq

Following are excerpts from an informative, well-written, yet deeply disturbing article by Chris Floyd.


It is painfully obvious that the forces which come closest to matching [the Islamofascists of the Bush administration’s fear-mongering] propaganda . . . have in fact been empowered by Bush’s [invasion and occupation of Iraq].

Obscurantist clerics and deadly sectarian groups backed by Bush now rule in Iraq, while his war of aggression there — and his global gulag of torture and unlawful detention — are swelling the ranks of violent extremists around the world, as his own State Department acknowledges in its latest report on international terrorism.

For example, last month, 14-year-old Ahmed Khalil was shot dead by the Bush-backed Iraqi police on the doorstep of his home, the Independent [of London] reports. His crime? Homosexuality. He was just one of scores of homosexuals — or suspected homosexuals — systematically slaughtered by the sectarian militias that Bush is arming and training to serve as Iraq’s official ‘security’ forces. Ironically, Ahmed might not even have been gay; he was having sex with men in the neighborhood for money to help his poverty-stricken family, which has been completely wiped out in the economic meltdown wrought by Bush’s ‘liberation.’

The ‘sexual cleansing’ campaign by the death squads Bush has unleashed is just part of the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, where — by conservative, ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’ estimates — almost 4,000 civilians have been murdered in Baghdad alone so far this year, many of them ‘hogtied and shot execution-style,’ the Los Angeles Times reports. ‘Others were strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted or hanged. ... Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs.’ Most such killings are now being carried out by the government-backed militias and their infiltrated agents in the Bushist police brigades, as Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, openly admits.

Keep in mind why this is happening. Iraq’s bloody ‘regime change’ was engineered in order to implement a thorough-going economic rapine plan drawn up for the Bush administration in early 2003 by the corporate consulting group BearingPoint, as Antonia Juhasz reports in her new book,
The Bush Agenda. BearingPoint, headquartered in the CIA company town of Maclean, Virginia, provided a detailed blueprint for opening up Iraq to predatory foreign ‘investment’ on terms that allowed the wholesale looting of the nation’s wealth while acing Iraqi companies out of the action.

Bush’s appointed satrap, Paul Bremer, executed the blueprint faithfully during his dictatorial rule in Baghdad. His edicts were then incorporated wholesale, hugger-mugger and without negotiation into the new Iraqi constitution. They are now the law of the land. The dark heart of the scam is, of course, the oil laws. Now that a ‘sovereign’ government has been established, these can be finalized at last. The plan is for 40-year ‘production-sharing agreements’ that will give Bush’s oil cronies a vast slice of Iraq’s oil output at rock-bottom prices (‘at cost’), as Chris Cook reports in the Asia Times. This windfall will make today’s record-breaking oil company profits look like chump change.

Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it is dispatching a ‘petroleum adviser’ to Baghdad to help the new Iraqi government complete its ‘critical petroleum law,’ Dow Jones Newswires reports. The adviser is being sent at the request of the U.S. State Department, headed by former oil exec Condoleezza Rice. And the company contracted to supply the adviser is — oh, you already guessed! — BearingPoint Inc.

So that’s why Ahmad Khalil had to die, along with thousands of others, gay and straight, Sunni and Shiite, religious and secular, Iraqi and American. It has nothing to do with any of the grand abstractions employed by the apologists for empire to mask their complicity with the immoral dictates of raw power: national security, humanitarian intervention, the war on terror, Islamofascism, and so on. No, it’s just a crude, brutal — and no doubt temporary — marriage of convenience between old-fashioned religious extremism and old-fashioned elitist greed. Both are committed to the destruction of Iraqi society in order to impose their own form of bondage in place of Saddam’s tyranny.

To read the full story, click here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Sexuality of Jesus

Yesterday, I discussed the controversy that The Da Vinci Code has caused among some Christians. Underlying many people’s anger towards the film is, I believe, discomfort around issues of human sexuality and, in particular, the sexuality of Jesus.

Joan Timmerman, one of my former theology professors at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed an insightful chapter to the 1994 anthology Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Nelson, James B., and Longfellow, Sandra P. (Eds.), Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky) in which she explores this important though potentially controversial topic.

In her contribution entitled “The Sexuality of Jesus and the Human Vocation,” Timmerman observes that “the perfecting of human love has always been recognized as a goal of religion. It is markedly so when a religion, such as Christianity, affirms the vocation to love as the primary way of identifying with the creative, redemptive, and transformative activity of the divine. Theologies of Jesus as the Christ and the Christ as God would be expected to emphasize love as the path of imitation of Christ. What is surprising is that the love modeled by the archetypal figure of Christ should emphasize the commitments of parent and neighbor to the practical exclusion of conjugal, erotic love.”

Timmerman acknowledges that “such preferences can be explained historically,” yet she nevertheless maintains that “to appeal to the life of the historical Jesus to ground such preferences is mistaken.”

She then goes on to note that “the humanity of Jesus, like femininity and masculinity, is constructed by us as a cultural symbol. Those things that reflect the aspirations of our own ways of being human are included; those things which incorporate the confusions and conflicts we wish to reject, are left out. This need not, indeed could not, be a reflective, intentional process, but nonetheless there is evidence that the affirmation ‘Jesus Christ is truly human’ has shifting content. Its content depends on the adequacy of the anthropological assumptions that underlie its doctrinal formulation.”

Renowned theologian
Edward Schillebeeckx, Timmerman reminds us, has written that our problem with developing an adequate Christology [i.e. a way of understanding and talking about Christ] is “not that we do not know enough about God, but that we do not know enough about what it means to be human.”

Timmerman rightly observes that when the classical descriptions of Jesus’ manhood were formulated, “it was in line with the conventional dualistic model,” one in which it was “unthinkable to include in normative humanity those things associated with women, connectedness, vulnerability, immersion in nature.”

Today, of course, any formulation about what it means to be human which does not take into account the experience of women is, says Timmerman, “simply wrong,” as it “represents not the normatively human but the male; it is vitiated because it is the partial pretending to be the universal.”

Timmerman also highlights the problem of anachronism, noting that “each age attempts to read its own preferred values into the image of the God-man.”

Accordingly, she observes that “Jesus has been cast as one of the desert hermits, as a royal ruler of the imperial kingdom, as a bishop shepherding the flock, as a divine physician healing plague-stricken victims, as a reformer cleansing old institutional forms, as the divine teacher of conventional morality, as the liberator, urging people to claim their intrinsic dignity, and of course as the supreme celibate who, free of all concupiscence, was never even tempted to intercourse with women.”

All of this, says Timmerman, is appropriate to a mythic, paradigmatic figure. “Only when formulated as if it were to be taken as revelation of the full and literal God-willed way of being human, and, as such, becomes the object of faith, only then does it become oppressive. The mythic becomes pernicious when it is understood and applied literally.”

“The doctrine of faith, the formulated content of revelation,” Timmerman reminds us, “is that Christ is fully human and fully divine.” She goes on to note that “the belief statements, written or unwritten, regarding what kind of sexual fulfillment full humanity entailed in Jesus, or in us, are subject to change. They are formulated according to historical and cultural insights and limitations, and to pretend otherwise is to mistake the words of men for the Word of God. Anyone sensitive to his/her own life knows that the experiences of loneliness, doubt, powerlessness, and fear have a different character when they are filtered through adult sexual awareness. To exclude on principle both this pleasure and this pain from Jesus’ human life seems an impoverishment indeed. The greater impoverishment, of course, is ours.”

Timmerman also reminds us that “the precise function of the Holy Sprit, given by the risen Jesus to the community he left, was to lead that community continuously into deeper and fuller knowledge of Christ.”

With regard speaking to the churches about the sexuality of Jesus, Timmerman observes that the Spirit has “only just begun.” She suggests this is because “our acceptance of [Jesus’] sexuality [is] conditional upon our esteem for our own,” just as “our appreciation of his humanity is dependent on our insight into our own.”

“The incarnation,” says Timmerman, “in a real sense, is not complete until the community of people discovers God disclosed in their own humanity; just so, an element of Christology is lacking until we can allow ourselves to formulate images of Jesus entering as deeply into the passion of sexuality as we have done regarding the passion of his suffering.”

To read a 1999 lecture by Joan Timmerman on the topic of “Sexuality and Spirituality,” click here.

Image 1: The face of a first-century Semitic man, rendered by the contemporary artist Donato Giancola. This image was featured in a 2004 New York Times article entitled “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?”
Image 2: Michael Bayly.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy

The Da Vinci Code will be released in US cinemas on May 19. The film stars Tom Hanks as a Harvard scholar who teams up with a French cryptologist (played by Audrey Tautou) to solve a murder mystery entwined in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and a supposed alternative history of Christianity. A central premise of the story is that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, and that a clandestine society has for centuries protected the identity of their descendants from agents of the Catholic Church.

Some Christians, among them Catholics, are denouncing the film (and the book by Dan Brown upon which it is based). The Vatican, for instance, has launched a public relations offensive against the film – which includes the producing of a rebuttal documentary entitled The Da Vinci Code – A Masterful Deception.

Fearing a work of fiction

As far as I can ascertain, there are three main (and related) reasons why some Christians are upset by The Da Vinci Code. The first is that it’s a popular work of fiction about Jesus.
And why is this such a big deal? Well, folks like the Rev. Paul Jarvis, associate pastor at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, Minnesota, fear that the fictitious, alternative history of Christianity presented in The Da Vinci Code, will be mistaken for fact and thus led astray those unschooled in orthodoxy.

What’s needed, according to Jarvis, is a “more educated Christian community.” Within the Catholic sphere, he suggests “Catholicism 101, 201 and 301 classes for adults in every parish or cluster of parishes.” Of course, the assumption is that the orthodox version of events is the real (i.e., accurate) Christian history, something which is highly debatable. Jarvis’ remedy also could be read to imply that all people need to do so as to have faith is to rote learn facts and figures about Church history and doctrine.

Yet as John Haught notes in What Is Religion?, “Religion is not in the same category of understanding as, for example, knowledge of the multiplication tables. It hardly possesses that kind of clarity and distinctness. People do not become religious simply by performing automatic operations in logic. Religion instead is closer to interpersonal kinds of experience and knowledge” that open people to the reality of the sacred. Marcus Borg has defined whatever it is that opens the human heart to God as spirituality.

Contrary, to what some may think, people aren’t drawn to, or sustained in authentic spirituality by promises of formulated answers unrelated to the questions they’re actually living. Nor are people drawn to, or sustained in authentic spirituality by rigid religious doctrine that keeps them spiritually stunted. Rather, people are called into relationship with God by transforming experiences of God in their lives – experiences that open their hearts to the sacred and herald journeys of ever-expanding consciousness and compassion.

Such experiences often occur beyond the parameters of orthodoxy (as with the case of GLBT persons experiencing God in the loving and committed relationships they’ve built, despite the Church’s condemnation and insistence instead on lifelong celibacy as the only true way to be in right relationship with God). These transforming and liberating experiencing certainly cannot be controlled or monopolized by orthodoxy. Indeed, they often threaten orthodoxy as they have the potential to expose and shatter its false gods of exclusivity and rigidity.

I’m not saying there’s no place for orthodoxy. What I am saying is that the understanding of God that orthodoxy presents should always be open to being reshaped and rearticulated by the experience of God in the lives and relationships of people. Organized religion's lack of openness to the presence of God in people's lives is far more damaging to spiritual development than is a work of fiction like The Da Vinci Code.

The question of Jesus’ sexuality

A second reason why some people are worked up about The Da Vinci Code is that they don’t like the way that this particular work of fiction portrays the historical Jesus. It seems that this portrayal – one that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity to the extent that he expressed his love for another sexually – threatens some Christians’ faith.

Personally, my faith is not dependent on the sex life of Jesus, but on my experience of the transforming presence and power of the risen Christ. Such an (ongoing) experience is not dependent on an understanding of Jesus that must be made to conform to the expectations and demands of those fearful and distrustful of sex. And throughout history, such people have always been with us. Indeed, I think I was probably one of them myself at one time.

An underlying assumption held by many who are disparaging of The Da Vinci Code, is that any type of sex would have been unworthy of the living, breathing Jesus. What does this say about human sexuality?

Those who are railing against The Da Vinci Code argue that the film must be avoided because it’s inaccurate in terms of Jesus’ sex life. They say that we know for a fact that Jesus was never married, never sexually active. To which I respond, “Do we?” The reality is we simply don’t know if Jesus was ever married or was ever involved sexually with another (male or female). The gospels are not biographical documents. They’re the faith testimonies of people writing to certain audiences and doing so with distinct agendas. They, like all of scripture, are limited and biased.

Understanding Jesus’ divinity

Critics of The Da Vinci Code insist that the film denies Jesus’ divinity. Yet does a fully human understanding of Jesus (one that allows, for instance, the possibility of sexual relations with another) deny his “divine” nature? How do we understand the divinity of Jesus? Is our understanding of this crucial part of our Christian faith set in stone, or can it develop and expand?

In his book The Kingdom Within (Paulist Press, 1990), John Sanford says that the divinity of Jesus (like our own inner core of divinity) must be understood in terms of consciousness and wholeness as opposed to infallibility and perfection. Sanford and others suggest that the historical Jesus was divine because of the depth of his consciousness with regard his understanding and living of right relationship with himself, others, and the sacred force that infuses all creation.

Sanford notes that throughout his life and ministry, Jesus called others to likewise cultivate this depth of consciousness – to recognize and claim, in other words, the sacred within themselves, thus opening themselves to the sacred’s transforming love and channeling this love to others.

Like Sanford, John White in his article “Jesus, Evolution, and the Future of Humanity” (Grof, S., (Ed.), Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988) reflects on the divinity of Jesus and concludes that “Jesus was a historical person, a human becoming; but Christ, the Christos, is an eternal transpersonal condition of being to which we must all someday come.”

White goes on to say that “Jesus did not say that this higher state of consciousness realized in him was his alone for all time. Nor did he call us to worship him. Rather, he called us to follow him . . . He called us to share in the new condition, to enter a new world, to be one in the supramental Christ consciousness which alone can dispel the darkness of our minds and renew our lives . . . Jesus taught and demonstrated cosmic consciousness, the Christic state of mind, the peace that surpasses understanding, the direct experience of divinity dwelling in us and all things, now and forever, creating us, preserving us, urging us to ever more inclusive states of being.”

Is Jesus' example and invitation diminished or annuled by the thought of him being sexual with another? I'm not suggesting that Jesus had to be sexual in order to be a fully conscious and compassionate human being, but neither do I think that a loving sexual relationship with another would preclude such fullness. For many, it's a wonderful pathway to greater consciousness and compassion. Are we to deny Jesus such a potential pathway? And if so, why?

The Da Vinci Code and women

I’ve read Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, upon which the film is based, and found it to be an entertaining though disposable read. I’ve also read a lot of commentaries on the book, with one of the most insightful being written by Christine Schenk and entitled, “What The Da Vinci Code Owes to Women.”

Schenk suggests that Brown's immensely successful novel has “struck a chord in popular culture because people are more knowledgeable about the leadership roles held by women in early Christianity, roles eventually suppressed by male church leaders.” In short, people sense that the institutional Church (i.e. the keeper of orthodoxy) has got something to hide.

“For the past 50 years,” Schenk notes, “a critical mass of feminist historians, biblical scholars and archaeologists, both male and female, have been studying ancient texts and excavation sites. Thanks to their painstaking work, we now have proof that Jesus included women in his closest discipleship, that women probably underwrote his Galilean mission, and that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men. Inscriptions and images found on papyri, tombstones, frescos and mosaics in Rome, Sicily, Jerusalem, Northern Africa, Egypt, Belgium, Jordan and Spain show early Christian women serving their communities as apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, priests, stewards, deacons and bishops.

“These early women officeholders were eventually suppressed by a philosophical system that viewed them as defective males and by a culture that accepted female leadership at home but not in public. When Constantine used Christianity to consolidate the crumbling Roman Empire, worship moved away from house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to public venues, often Roman law courts, where women’s leadership violated cultural norms of honor and shame. A woman leader speaking publicly was viewed as outside her husband’s control and therefore dishonorable. That early male church leaders suppressed women’s leadership is a known fact . . .”

Schenk concludes her article by acknowledging that “eminent scholars are unanimous that there is no real biblical or historical evidence to support [Dan Brown’s claim that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus and bore his child, beginning a royal bloodline that continues to this day]. . . But popular culture easily overlooks this, perhaps seeing it for what it is: a literary carrier for the far larger truth that the new ‘holy grail’ is the mutuality of love meant to exist between women and men – perhaps the first and best gift given by the God who loves us all.”

The full text of Schenk’s article can be found

NEXT: Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code