Thursday, July 31, 2008

Robert McClory on Humanae Vitae

Last Friday marked the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

In marking this anniversary, the editors of The National Catholic Reporter write:

[Humanae Vitae] was a sensitively written document about the sanctity of marital love and the need to nurture life in marriage. But whatever else it stated, it has been remembered for only one thing: the upholding of the Catholic church’s ban on birth control.

The encyclical upheld Pope Pius XII’s support of the rhythm method (now called natural family planning) and in doing so, revealed its particular understanding of natural law. Its reasoning, theologians say, rested on the physiological structure of the act of intercourse while largely discounting the larger context of human love and family life.

Less than a decade after the encyclical’s promulgation, polls showed it was overwhelmingly rejected by Catholics. . . . Repeated U.S. surveys find that Catholics regard church teachings on sexual morality increasingly out of sync with their lived experience and their understanding of love and intimacy. They knew and still know that sex between husband and wife is capable of creating far more than new humans. They also know their gay sons and daughters are not disordered . . . (NCR, July 25, 2008)

This past Sunday, award-winning Catholic author, Robert McClory (pictured at right), had a commentary published in the Chicago Tribune about Humanae Vitae and its legacy.

McClory’s commentary is reprinted in its entirety below.


Contraception Ban Remains Bitter Pill
By Robert McClory
Chicago Tribune
July 27, 2008

Forty years ago last week, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemning the birth control pill and all other forms of artificial contraception.

So, four decades later: Did Paul get it right or wrong?

Right, say the encyclical’s throng of proponents (just Google Humanae Vitae and scroll on forever). The pope predicted a lowering of moral standards, a rise in infidelity and promiscuity, a lessening of respect for women and government-enforced limitations on population. All these things have come to pass, and the pope’s supporters see contraception at the center of them all.

Wrong, say the numbers who have left the church since 1968 (so that one in every 10 Americans is now a former Catholic, according to a Pew survey this year) and the majority of believers (more than 75 percent, according to the 2005 Catholic Identity Study) who remain in the church yet reject the encyclical. The proclamation was, they insist, a disaster.

Speaking of Humanae Vitae, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George acknowledged gloomily, “We have the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church.”

That raises an issue that gets too little attention in the debate. The ban on all forms of contraception always and everywhere not only failed to solve the problems inherent in the sexual revolution, it prevented the church from having any voice in ongoing discussion among reasonable people of faith (or no faith) concerning responses to the revolution.

The revolution would have happened if the pope had said nothing, or even if the birth control pill had never been invented. It was well on its way with both its assets and its liabilities by 1968. To make contraception the only major cause is to place too heavy a responsibility on one very visible factor. Paul VI thought he might turn back the tide or un-grease the slippery slope with strong words, but they proved too strong.

In traditional Catholic morality, the nature of a human act, the intention and the circumstances must be all considered in weighing its rightness or wrongness.

But as Pope Paul presented his case, intention and circumstances are irrelevant. The nature of contraception is so heinous, so intrinsically evil that alleviating circumstance and good intention don’t count.

We can all acknowledge that contraception is on a different level from, say, killing a human being. Yet killing is an act that may not be determined good or bad until we know intention and circumstances. The placing of absolute judgment on contraception itself—by pill, condom or whatever—raises the bar to a level that seems to many responsible and thoughtful people to be irresponsible.

Killing is not always wrong. But contraception always is?

To cite a not-uncommon case from Africa and elsewhere, may a man infected with HIV use a contraceptive device to prevent infecting his wife? No, he may not, says church teaching.

May a couple who already have seven children and live in a blighted, overpopulated region practice contraception to curb the likely death by starvation of an eighth child? No, they may not. They can choose abstinence or try natural family planning and hope for the best.

Closer to home, may a couple in Chicago beset with financial or health problems temporarily rely on contraception until they are in better shape for a family? Absolutely not!

The problem with Humanae Vitae is rigidity. The pontiff was correct in seeing what strange fruits the revolution would produce, but his cure was as bad or worse than the disease.

He could have acted differently. He could have said that the world is facing an unprecedented challenge in human history that requires careful study and expert inquiry. He could have said that selfish, non-generative lifestyles are not acceptable, that thoughtless contraception cheapens sex, that circumstances count very much and that people have an obligation to weigh carefully what they do.

He could even have praised the values of natural family planning. He could have become a respected conversant among national and world bodies seeking credible answers. But because of the absolute ban, popes, bishops and theologians have had little to offer except a repeated no, no, never!

Church leadership left the table 40 years ago, painting itself into this corner.

Within the church itself the saddest byproduct is what has been happening to its membership. Many parents of the 1960s retained an overall confidence in the church while dissenting on the contraception issue. Their children widened the sense of separation, and the grandchildren may not even realize there ever was a religious institution that had wisdom and a sense of real community to share.

That fruit of Humanae Vitae is for many the most bitter.

Robert McClory of Northwestern University is a former Catholic priest and author of As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church.

Recommended Off-site Link:
40 Years of Humanae Vitae, the “Pill Encyclical” - Gerald A. Naus.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Robert McClory’s Latest Book Honored by Catholic Press Association
Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work”
(featuring two reviews of McClory’s latest book, As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church).
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
Here Comes Everybody!
(featuring my April 2008 interview with Robert McClory).
Ghostwriting for the Pope
(a commentary by Robert McClory).
The Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice (which featured Robert McClory as keynote speaker).

Image: Michael J. Bayly.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships

The forthcoming August issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice will feature an insightful and hopeful article by Cletus Wessels, O.P. (pictured at right), entitled “Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality.”

I had the honor of meeting Cletus this past February at the parish of St. Albert the Great in South Minneapolis. I was at St. Albert’s with my friends Jeri and Kathleen for one of the parish’s famous Lenten Fish Suppers.

As well as being a much-loved (retired) pastor at St. Albert’s, Cletus is also a theologian and author. When I was visiting with him and his community, he generously gifted me with copies of his two books, Jesus in the New Universe Story and The Holy Web: Church and the New Universe Story.

Recently I found on the Internet an article Cletus wrote in 2003 for The American Catholic. Because this particular article’s focus is relevant to recent posts and discussions here at The Wild Reed on the nature, structure, and future of the Roman Catholic Church, I’m sharing it in its entirety below. (Note: I’ve added the sub-headings.)

As you’ll see from reading this article, Cletus is not only a theologian but also an historian. I greatly appreciate the way he lays out the development of both the laity and clergy within Roman Catholicism, and the way he’s unafraid to ask difficult, unsettling questions. I also admire his willingness to pose solutions, not just identify problems; and his ability to grasp and articulate “the bigger picture.” In short, I can see why he’s been
described as “[having] a way of communicating his excitement about the church to people. . . . He knows the history and theology of the church and good ways of presenting them.”


A Restructured Church:
The Demise of Clergy and Laity

By Cletus Wessels, O.P.

The American Catholic
January/February 2003

In the midst of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, people are beginning to call for a restructuring of the Church. The current hierarchical structure is being challenged as it becomes clear that major decisions have been made by a relatively small group of higher clergy without adequate input from the broader community. Such a limited decision-making body results in a system that is closed, secret and self-protecting. Rather, the vibrant life of the Church demands visible representation from its entire body, from women and men, parents and children, people of all lifestyles, colors and ages.

Saying goodbye to “the club”

The clerical culture is being called into question by lay people and priests alike. In an article in America (May 13, 2002) entitled “Farewell to ‘the Club’,” Michael Papesh says, “It is time to consider the possibility that the residue of a repressive clerical culture is near the heart of our problems.... The time has come to bid farewell to ‘the club.’”

A re-examination of the viability of the distinction between clergy and laity in the Church is essential for its future renewal. Such a renewal is possible only if we begin with the fundamental questions: How did an egalitarian Jesus community end up as a church divided into two separate groups, the clergy and the laity? What were the dynamics which brought about this transformation?

As it was in the beginning

Any attempt to portray the structure of the Church in the early centuries of its life is complicated by the variety and diversity of the written sources and by the difficulty of interpreting these sources out of each person’s own experiences and biases. We can, however, discover a general consensus on the broad outline of the way in which the distinction between clergy and laity developed in the first six centuries.

In the New Testament and during the early apostolic times there is no mention of clergy or laity.

The priestly function – the true priesthood – is peculiar to Christ, who has enabled all Christians to share in it. In the Christian communities of the first century, there was no independent priestly function that was exercised by a special caste or minister. The laity as such was not recognized in the New Testament, which speaks only of people, a holy people, a chosen people, a people set apart, a kleros entirely responsible for carrying out a royal priesthood and calling on each one of its members to give to God true worship in spirit. (Alexandre Faivre, The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church, Paulist Press).

Edward Schillebeeckx describes the situation as the Church moved into the second century. “At the beginning of this transitional period, the Church’s ministry was in no way detached from the community or, so to speak, set above it; ministry is clearly incorporated into the totality of all kinds of services which are necessary for the community” (Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ, Crossroad). In the ongoing life of the Church during the biblical and early apostolic time, there is no evidence for a distinction between clergy and laity either linguistically or in reality.

The turning point

The turning point in the history of the community came at the beginning of the third century. The term “lay,” a word barely encountered in the first century in the epistle of Clement of Rome, suddenly came into use again. The idea of “clergy,” at the same time, was formed and became used more extensively. With Cyprian, an influential African bishop of the third century, the new position of the clergy precisely as clergy, a closed group within, and in some sense above, the community, was solidified.

What has happened? How and why, over a period of two centuries, did the clear distinction between clergy and laity become an integral part of the life of the Christian community? The reasons are many and they are complex, but we can point out briefly some of the factors that were involved.

1) Among the earliest Christians, there were multiple charisms and ministries, but by the third century the eucharistic celebration became the central focus of community life. This gave the presider at the Eucharist, ordinarily the bishop, a leadership role of greater importance and visibility within the community.

2) The bishop also became something of a father figure and an economic manager since he was the recipient of the financial contributions from the community and the one who dispersed the funds to the presbyters and deacons, as well as to the poor and needy. A primary function of the layperson was to contribute to the community, and the bishop became the steward of the wealth of the community.

3) Although the traditional Jewish typology of priesthood with its high priest and a Levitical priestly family was not generally used by Christians in the first two centuries, in the third century, it became widely used as a model for the Church and for the distinction between the clergy and laity.

4) The challenges to unity in the Church from without (pagans) and from within (heretics) further strengthened the leadership role of the bishop as a source of intellectual and doctrinal unity.

5) During this period, monarchy was seen as the ideal system of government for both the civil society and the Church. This is clearly stated in a quote from the Pseudo-Clementine Writings of the third century: “The great number of believers must obey one leader if they are to live in harmony together. For the means of government which, based on the model of the monarchy, results in one leader being in command enables all that leader’s subjects, through good order, to enjoy peace.”

An “unequal society”: essential to the Church?

Whatever the historical reasons, an important transformation took place in the Church over the first six centuries. The clear distinction between clergy and laity continued almost undisturbed as a part of the structure of the Church. It became a more important dimension of the life of the community as well when, over the centuries, the Church’s institutional character became more clearly articulated. At the beginning of the 20th century, the relationship between clergy and laity was clearly articulated by Pius X, and it was seen by the pope as part of the essence Church.

It follows that the Church is by essence an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all it members. Toward that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors (“Vehementer Nos”).

In what way can the relationship between the clergy and laity be essential to the structure of the Church? It cannot be essential to the very life of the Church in such a way that the Church cannot exist without it, because the Church in fact existed for centuries without such a structure. Perhaps it was essential to the life of the Church as the Church found itself surrounded by a patriarchal and monarchical society. Without the rise of a strong clerical leadership, the Church probably would not have survived in such a society. Now in a radically different social and cultural setting, the distinction between clergy and laity may no longer be a viable structure of the Church.

“Collegiality”: the code word of Vatican II

The first hints of this possible change in the structure of the Church appeared in the discussions during the Second Vatican Council and in the documents that were subsequently promulgated. “The Dogmatic Constitution Church” (Lumen Gentium), with its focus on the Mystery of the Church and the People of God, hinted at the fact that the basic reality of the Church is the mystery of God’s presence within the entire community of the people of God. The code word in Vatican II was “collegiality,” and in the post-conciliar times, there were great hopes for an international synod of bishops, episcopal conferences, and pastoral councils as a means of embodying the people of God as the basic structure of the Church. According to
Richard Gaillardetz, Vatican II presented us with a new vision.

The vision of the Church developed at Vatican II represented a decisive move away from an excessively institutional view of the Church and toward an ecclesiology grounded in the concept of communion, which ... has its roots in the biblical notion of koinonia. . . . It suggests that the Church is constituted by a set of relationships that possess a particular character. . . . This means that, as with the Trinitarian relations, all ecclesial relations will be 1) egalitarian yet differentiated and 2) mutual and reciprocal. This has significant implications, needless to say, for the exercise of power and authority in the Church (“Teaching with Authority,” Liturgical Press).

This future vision of ecclesial relations as egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal has not been realized despite the honest efforts of many people in every sector of the Church’s life. What, then, is the impediment to addressing the deeply felt need within the Church for a change in the overall structure of the Church resulting in ecclesial relations that are egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal? The solution to this problem is not found in simply improving clergy/laity relations or calling for more collegiality among the clergy and more docility among the laity. Something more radical is needed; something that gets at the very roots of the problem.

A Gordian knot

Perhaps the root of the problem is that relationships in a society comprising two categories of person in which one group has all the rights and authority and the other group allows itself to be led simply cannot be egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal. The relationship between clergy and laity is like a Gordian knot which, in Greek legend, could be undone only by the future master of Asia. Alexander the Great, failing to untie it, cut the knot with his sword. Vatican II tried but could not untie the knot because it did not deal directly with the clergy/laity relationship. I agree with Remi Parent that the only way to cut the Gordian knot is to do away entirely with the distinction between clergy and laity as it is now understood in the Church. “To put it crudely, I think that the future of the clergy and of the laity requires that the clerics cease being clerics and that lay people cease being lay people” (A Church of the Baptized: Overcoming the Tension between the Clergy and the Laity, Paulist Press).

This is not only a very difficult task, as has become clear with the more modest attempts of Vatican II to modify the ecclesial relationships within the Church, but it is a task that can be accomplished only by seeing the current clergy/laity relationship as part of a complex authoritative hierarchy of relations that constitute our whole religious mentality. If people think of God as a commanding autocrat, they will likely create an ecclesial autocracy, and justify it by reference to God’s authority. This network of relations can be seen graphically in the diagram below.

Each element is a passive object in relationship to what is above it and an active subject in relationship to what is below it, and it is clear that in this religious universe, the movement indicated by the arrows only goes from top to bottom. The clergy/laity relationship is deeply embedded in this larger religious mentality. The image of God portrayed in this schema is a transcendent God whose transcendence is the external cause of all that exists. God in relationship to all other things is the only active subject and all other creatures are passive objects. Jesus Christ can be an active subject only insofar as he is seen in his divinity as God, while in his humanity, Jesus is seen as the passive object. Clergy are passive in relationship to Christ and are active only as they participate in a special way in the divine power of Christ, and the downward flow of this power of the clerical state goes from the pope to bishops to priests to deacons. The laity are passive in the internal workings of the Church, but the laity, empowered by the clergy, can be active in the world. The world is entirely a passive object waiting to be sanctified by presence and preaching of the Church.

Thus the Gordian knot is a much larger and a much broader religious universe than it seemed at first, and this knot cannot be untied within the current paradigm of the Church. In my opinion, the only way to cut the almost universal Gordian knot is by using the sword of a new paradigm which is found in the holarchical Church.

A community of disciples

The basis of a new paradigm is a radically new story of the universe and a new Cosmology calling for concepts, images and structures unknown to previous generations. It is a vision of God as the internal cause of creation who is immediately present within the whole of creation unfolding in the 15 billion year story of the universe. This is a vision that does not see God’s presence as mediated from top to bottom through Jesus Christ to the clergy to the laity to the world. Rather the presence of God is the center of a web of relationships, with the power and presence of God expanding in all directions from within. The new paradigm is a vision of the Church as a community of disciples with the greatest possible diversity in which all are treated as subjects filled with a deep sense of communion in the one body of Christ, a Church that is not a pyramid but a web of relationships.

It is not possible to describe in any detail a holarchical Church in which clerics cease being clerics and lay people cease being lay people because, in the new paradigm, the Church as a self-organizing system unfolds and emerges out of the presence of God within it. We also know that, as we see in the universe, God emerges in many strange and unanticipated ways. Moreover, it is important to recall that, in terms of liberation, the only true freedom is the freedom that comes from within when the oppressed choose to be free. Thus, wherever there is oppression in the Church, freedom will come when the laity themselves choose to cease being laity and the clergy, who can also be the object of oppression, choose to cease being clergy. To live out such a new paradigm will require a deep and strong faith in the presence and power of God.

If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it will be open to all and will foster relationships that are egalitarian yet differentiated, mutual and reciprocal. As the scandal spreads and the bishops struggle with damage control, the people of God will meet this challenge only by looking more deeply into the structure of the Church. What is called for is an inner change of heart, an entirely new way of thinking, and a new vision of the Church. Cosmetic changes are no longer adequate. We need cosmic changes!

Cletus Wessels is a Dominican priest who served for 18 years as a professor of theology at Aquinas Institute. He is the author of Jesus in the New Universe Story and The Holy Web: Church and the New Universe Story.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Church That Can and Cannot Chance
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
An Australian Bishop’s “Radical” Call for Reform
Beyond Papalism
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power – at 30,000 Ft.
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)
Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work”
Robert McClory Honored by Catholic Press Association
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)
The “Underground Church”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Car Ad with a Difference

Continuing with The Wild Reed’s series of gay-themed advertisements from around the world, here’s one that gave me a good chuckle.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Still Gay
An Israeli Gay-themed Advertisement
If the Jeans Fit . . .
Simple Yet Powerful
One Out of Ten
A Beer Ad with a Difference
Those Europeans are at it Again

Monday, July 28, 2008

Starting a Civil Discourse

The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal is currently midway through publishing a four-part series comprised of excerpts from Charles Pilon’s book, Waiting for Mozart: A Novel About Church People Caught in Conflict. (For the first installment of this series, click here. For the second, click here.)

Last Friday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper highlighted the book in a piece that, although more of a report than a review, nevertheless shed light on this important novel. I particularly appreciated the article’s quotes from Charles (pictured above right) about his work and his hope that his book will “start a civil discourse” on important issues facing the both the Catholic Church and wider society.


Church Power Struggles Form Book’s Plot
By Jeff Strickler
Star Tribune
July 25, 2008

As a former Roman Catholic priest, Charles Pilon wanted to write a book addressing the internal power struggles that plague so many congregations. But he knew that if he wrote a dry, scholarly treatise, only a few religious scholars would be likely to buy it and even fewer would be likely to read it. For the message to be effective, it had to reach the people sitting in the pews.

So the Roseville man wrote a novel, Waiting for Mozart (Caritis Communications, $15.95). And any expectations that it’s going to be a dry, scholarly treatise are gone by page 5. That’s when an angry parishioner starts screaming at a priest, who goes berserk and tries to strangle her.

“It’s not about priest-bashing,” said Pilon, who stepped down from the priesthood after a decade to get married, but remained employed by the church as a business administrator until his retirement in 2000. “Yes, the priest has [control] issues, but laypeople bring their junk to the table, too. Everyone is so self-righteous that they refuse to bend. We have to remember that Jesus was inclusive of everyone.”

Pilon wrote about a Catholic church because that’s what he knows best, “but this is not just an issue for Catholics,” he said. “In fact, it’s not even just a church issue. I’ve heard people in social-service organizations complain about the same things. These are common experiences.”

The novel focuses on an increasingly contentious power struggle between a priest and a few parish board members. The attack that opens the story wasn’t in the first draft, which focused more on “insider baseball” topics.

“To me, as a former priest, the chapters I wrote about the antagonism and tension in the church council meetings was powerful stuff,” he said. “But I came to realize that the average person doesn’t care that much about it.”

Because of his career in the church, the first question he gets asked by his associates is if there is a character based on them. And even though they are composite characters, Pilon always answers, “Yes.”

“They say, ‘Am I in the book?’ And I say, ‘We’re all in the book,’” he said. “This is based on my lifetime of experiences working in the church.”

Ultimately, he hopes the book gets readers to ask about how their own church is run. “I want to start a civil discourse,” he said. “We have to put our arrogance aside to look for ways that might be better.”

Jeff Strickler

For William Coughlin Hunt’s review of Waiting for Mozart, click here.

For more information about Waiting for Mozart and/or to purchase a copy of the book, visit Charles Pilon’s website, here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Robert Kaiser’s Cardinal Mahony: An Action Plan for the Future of the Church, Disguised as a Novel
Robert McClory’s Latest Book Honored by Catholic Press Association
Margaret Farley’s Just Love
Uta Ranke-Heinemann on the Future of the Roman Catholic Church
Hans Küng: Still Speaking from the Heart of the Church

Friday, July 25, 2008

Impossible! . . . It Can't Be!

Above: The gang’s all here! From left: Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth
Sladen);Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke); Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri);
Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), the Doctor (David Tennant); Martha Jones
(Freema Agyeman); Jack Harkness (John Burrowman)
and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate).

Yes, I’m excited. Call it a guilty pleasure, but tonight a group of friends and I will be poised in front of the TV to watch Part 1 of the two-part season finale of Doctor Who (Sci-Fi Channel, 8:00 p.m. – and repeated at 10:00 p.m.)

I have to admit, however, that I’ve cheated somewhat and already seen tonight’s episode. You see, this particular episode was originally broadcast in the U.K. on June 28, and being the Doctor Who fan that I am, I simply couldn’t wait a whole month before the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. got around to showing its (edited for time) version. And so I watched it online via the Doctor Who fansite, Planet Gallifrey.

So, if you tune in tonight, what can you expect? Well, in his review for The Stage, Mark Wright describes tonight’s episode as “the most bonkers, delicious, audacious, brilliant, silly, exciting and scary piece of Doctor Who seen in the 45-year history of [the] TV series. [It’s] Doctor Who at its most show stopping, entertaining and brilliant best.”

As to the plot . . . well, it wouldn’t be giving too much away to say that tonight’s episode, entitled “The Stolen Earth,” sees our home world and twenty-six other planets stolen by the Daleks and their evil, megalomaniac creator, Davros (pictured at left) - a feat that (as you’ll see in the first video clip below) ensures no end of sky-gazing and exclamations of: “Impossible!” “It can’t be!” and “Oh, my God!” (The reason for this theft of truly cosmic proportions is revealed next Friday night in “Journey’s End,” the second part of the finale.)

As the Doctor (David Tennant) and his time and space traveling companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) try to locate the missing planets, the Doctor’s Earth-bound previous companions, Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), and (my favorite) Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, pictured at right) team up to contact the Doctor and mount a spirited defense against the invading Daleks.

“Exterminate! Exterminate!” – No longer content
to steal the show,
the Daleks abscond with the entire planet!

“The Stolen Earth” marks the first appearance of Davros since the 1988 serial, “Remembrance of the Daleks” (from the original or “classic” Doctor Who series that run from 1963 to 1989). Davros first appeared in the 1975 serial, “Genesis of the Daleks” – a story that also featured Elisabeth Sladen in her early days of playing Sarah Jane Smith (1973-76).

The two-part season finale, starting with tonight’s episode, also marks the return of several recurring characters from the “new” or revived Doctor Who series (2005-present), such as Rose; Rose’s mum, Jackie; Mickey Smith; Captain Jack Harkness; Harriet Jones; Donna’s mum and grandfather, Sylvia and Wilf; and Dalek Caan.

“The Stolen Earth” also crosses over with Doctor Who’s two spin-off series, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Accordingly, it marks the first Doctor Who appearance of Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones (from Torchwood, and pictured left with Captain Jack Harkness); and Tommy Knight as Luke Smith (from The Sarah Jane Adventures).

In the U.K., “The Stolen Earth” was reviewed positively by audience and professional reviewers; the Audience Appreciation Index was 91 – an unprecedented figure for Doctor Who and one of the highest ratings ever given to a television program. Reviewers particularly commended Julian Bleach for his portrayal of Davros and executive producer and writer Russell T. Daviss writing. It seems a fitting conclusion to a season that has boasted some (literally) fantastic stories, including “The Fires of Pompeii”, “Planet of the Ood”, “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, and the grim yet compelling “Turn Left”.

Following are four short BBC trailers for both tonight’s episode and for “Journey’s End,” Part 2 of Doctor Who’s Season 4 two-part finale. Enjoy!

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Blast from the Past: The Return of Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith
What Sarah Jane Did Next She’s So Lovely
She’s Back!
London Calling

Recommended Off-site Links: A Review of “The Stolen Earth” - Ross Ruediger (The House Next Door, July 28, 2008).
A Review of “Journey’s End” - Ross Ruediger (The House Next Door, August 5, 2008).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Priest Reflects on God and the Problem of Evil

My friends Charlie and Maria recently brought to my attention the following reflection by a local priest. As you’ll see, it’s a very humble and honest sharing of his thoughts on the age-old problem of evil in the world.

What struck me most about this particular reflection was how refreshing it was to hear a priest actually ponder, question, and acknowledge his “limited viewpoint” and thus his willingness to simply “bow before the mystery” of God. It makes a welcome change from the pontificating we so often hear from clerics, and their insistence that they or the Church itself has all possible answers to the complexities of life.


Dear People Whom God Loves,

I don’t pretend to solve a problem that has vexed philosophers and theologians for centuries. These are just my personal thoughts that are helpful to me. The following is the way the issue is usually framed:

1. Evil exists.
2. God is benevolent (loving).
3. God is omnipotent (all powerful).

Is it possible to rationally hold all three statements as true?

1. That evil exists is common (maybe universal) experience.

2. If God is benevolent, then God will want to eliminate evil. If God wants to eliminate all evil but does not, it means that God is not omnipotent.

3. If God is omnipotent, he can eliminate all evils. If he doesn’t, it means that God is not benevolent.

Some philosophers have held to belief in God and given explanations about why evil can exist with a God who is benevolent and omnipotent.

Some philosophers hold that reason compels us to deny that there is a God. Better to have no God than one that is either a monster or a weakling.

From my limited viewpoint, it seems to me that they are all thinking of God as a being. An infinite Being. A being as we are beings, but infinitely greater. With that starting point, I doubt that there can be a satisfactory solution. When we think of God as an infinite Being, we are presupposing that God acts like other beings but on a much larger scale. This makes God the biggest being in the universe but still one of its beings.

When we image God not as a being but as the source of being – the non-being – the emptiness (i.e., the non-being) from which all beings come, we will not be trapped into the box of thinking that God acts by cause and effect as we do. Then we can bow before the mystery.

To put this in traditional theological language, God is being, God is not being, God is more than being.

If you have read this far, you may think that this is just a bunch of nonsense. That’s okay. Just throw it away. I throw it away, too, when I am with God.

I believe that God is. I believe that God loves us. I believe that God helps us. I believe in the power of prayer. I don’t pretend to believe that I know how God works.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 1)
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 2)
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paul Collins
In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mary of Magdala

Today is the Feast Day of Mary of Magdala (also known as Mary Magdalene).

I can think of no better way to celebrate this day on The Wild Reed than by sharing excerpts from a very scholarly tract (from about this remarkable woman of the New Testament. Enjoy!


Mary Magdala – Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood figure in early Christianity. In Christian art and hagiography, Mary has been romanticized, allegorized, and mythologized beyond recognition. Since the fourth century, she has been portrayed as a prostitute and public sinner who, after encountering Jesus, repented and spent the rest of her life in private prayer and penitence. Paintings, some little more than pious pornography, reinforce the mistaken belief that sexuality, especially female sexuality, is shameful, sinful, and worthy of repentance. Yet the actual biblical account of Mary of Magdala paints a far different portrait than that of the bare-breasted reformed harlot of Renaissance art.

First Witness to the Resurrection

Nowhere in scripture is Mary of Magdala identified as a public sinner or a prostitute. Instead, scripture shows her as the primary witness to the most central events of Christian faith, named in exactly the same way (Maria e Magdalena) in each of four gospels written for diverse communities throughout the Mediterranean world. It was impossible to relate the story of the Resurrection without including “Mary, the one from Magdala.”

Luke 8,1-3 tells us that Mary traveled with Jesus in the Galilean discipleship and, with Joanna and Susanna, supported his mission from her own financial resources. In the synoptic gospels, Mary leads the group of women who witness Jesus’ death, burial, the empty tomb, and His Resurrection. The synoptics contrast Jesus’ abandonment by the male disciples with the faithful strength of the women disciples who, led by Mary, accompany him to his death. John’s gospel names Mary of Magdala as the first to discover the empty tomb and shows the Risen Christ sending her to announce the Good News of his resurrection to the other disciples. This prompted early church Fathers to name her “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

That the message of the resurrection was first entrusted to women is regarded by scripture scholars as strong proof for the historicity of the resurrection accounts. Had accounts of Jesus’ resurrection been fabricated, women would never have been chosen as witnesses, since Jewish law did not acknowledge the testimony of women.

Early non-canonical Christian writings show faith communities growing up around Mary’s ministry, where she is portrayed as understanding Jesus’ message better than did Peter and the male disciples. Scholars tell us that these writings are not about the historical persons Mary and Peter but instead reflect tensions over women’s roles in the early church. Prominent leaders such as Mary and Peter were evoked to justify opposing points of view. What is not disputed is the recognition of Mary of Magdala as an important woman leader in earliest Christianity.

What Happened?

Why are contemporary Christians uninformed about Mary’s faithful discipleship and prominent leadership role in the infant church? One explanation is a common misreading of Luke’s gospel which tells us that “seven demons had gone out of her.” (Luke 8,1-3) To first century ears, this meant only that Mary had been cured of serious illness, not that she was sinful. According to biblical scholars such as Sr. Mary Thompson, illness was commonly attributed to the work of evil spirits, although not necessarily associated with sinfulness. The number seven symbolized that her illness was either chronic or very severe.

Women Leaders Suppressed

In 312, when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire, the Christian community was caught in a cultural conflict as it moved from worship in house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to worship in public places where women’s leadership violated Roman social codes of honor and shame. In the fourth century, male church leaders at the Council of Laodicea suppressed women leaders because of the belief that women were created subordinate to men. During this same time period, we see the memory of Mary of Magdala changing from that of a strong female disciple and proclaimer of the Resurrection to a repentant prostitute and public sinner. Scholars such as Dr. Jane Schaberg believe this was done deliberately to discourage female leadership in the church.

As knowledge of Jesus’ many women disciples faded from historical memory, their stories merged and blurred. The tender anointing of Mary of Bethany prior to Jesus’ passion was linked to the woman “known to be a sinner” whose tears washed and anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s house. The anointing texts combined all of these women into one generic public sinner, “Magdalen.” Misidentification of Mary as reformed public sinner achieved official standing with a powerful homily by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).

Henceforth, Mary of Magdala became known in the west, not as the strong woman leader who accompanied Jesus through a tortuous death, first witnessed his Resurrection, and proclaimed the Risen Savior to the early church, but as a wanton woman in need of repentance and a life of hidden (and hopefully silent) penitence. Interestingly, the eastern church never identified her as a prostitute, but honored her throughout history as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

“Mary Magdalene” by Sally K. Green.

Writes artist Sally K. Green:

Saint Mary Magdalene was a dear friend of Jesus. She was also a wealthy woman of stature in her community. She was there when Jesus was crucified, while other disciples fled.

Ancient tradition of the Eastern Church says that after Christ’s Ascension, Mary traveled to Rome. Due to her high social standing she was admitted to appear before Caesar to tell him of how poorly Pilate had administered Jesus’ trial.

To make her point, she picked up an egg from the banquet table, explaining that Jesus came out of the tomb like a chicken breaking out of its shell. Caesar scoffed and said, “a human could no more rise from the dead than that egg could turn red. ” As he said the words, the egg turned red!

It is believed that this red egg inspired the tradition of coloring Easter eggs.

Opening Image: Artist unknown.
Image 2: Eileen Cantlin Verbus.
Image 3: Sofia Christine.
Image 4: Artist unknown.
Image 5: Sally K. Green.
Image 6 (right): Janet McKenzie.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Who Framed Mary Magdalene - Heidi Schlumpf (U.S. Catholic).
What The Da Vinci Code Owes to Women - Christine Schenk (National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code

An Action Plan for the Future of the Church, Disguised as a Novel

Yes, that’s how veteran journalist and author, Robert Blair Kaiser (pictured at right), describes his latest book, Cardinal Mahony - A Novel.

Kaiser was in the Twin Cities this past weekend, and I plan on writing a future post about his shared recollections of Vatican II (which he covered for Time Magazine), and his current efforts to inspire and establish a constitution for the American Catholic Church. (It’s Kaiser belief that such a constitution would help create a church that is “accountable,” primarily because it would be autochthonous, i.e., “home grown,” and thus distinct from the Roman system without being disassociated from it - not unlike the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches and what some have said the Catholic Church in China has, in some ways, become.)

For now, though, I’d simply like to share excepts from a review of Kaiser’s Cardinal Mahony - A Novel. This particular review is written by “Peregrinus” and was originally published on the Catholica Australia website.


The Church likened to a giant iceberg . . .

Icebergs are handy for metaphors because, as everyone knows, the great bulk of any iceberg is hidden; only the very top can be seen. A Google search returns 3.3 million hits for the phrase “tip of the iceberg.” If more than a handful of those refer to an actual iceberg, I’ll be astonished.

But icebergs have another feature almost equally useful to the maker of metaphors. They shrink in a very irregular fashion. Icebergs change shape all the time, through bits breaking off, through wind and wave erosion, through localized melting. The result is that an iceberg’s centre of gravity is constantly shifting.

. . . ready to roll

Most of the time this isn’t noticeable but, when the centre of gravity shifts just far enough, an iceberg will roll over without warning. If you happen to be nearby when that happens, you’ll certainly notice. An iceberg can weigh up to 200,000 tons, and it displaces a similar mass of water. That makes for some very big waves when a berg rolls. If you survive the turmoil, when the waves die down you’ll see what looks like a completely different iceberg.

For Robert Blair Kaiser, the American church is an iceberg, just waiting for the choppy wave, or the slightly warm wind from the right quarter, or the fracture at just the right point which will nudge the centre of gravity past the tipping point. And then the berg will roll.

An overview of Cardinal Mahony – A Novel

In this novel, Kaiser imagines the American church rolling, or at least starting to roll.

To do this, he has to start with the nudge, the small impulse that sets off the chain of large events. For this purpose he rather implausibly imagines the Archbishop of Los Angeles being kidnapped by a group of militant liberation theologians, brought to a remote jungle location and subjected to a show trial for his sins and failings as a bishop. This takes up the first five chapters of the novel; the remainder is devoted to exploring how the Archbishop is changed by this experience, how he seeks to change the American church, and how Powerful Vested Interests seek to stop him.

The novel is written in a genre new to me; reality fiction. The archbishop who is subjected to this ordeal is not a fictional character; but the current real-life current archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony. And, Kaiser assures us in his foreword, the facts brought out in his trial are real, and can be documented. The trial itself and subsequent events are of course imagined but, Kaiser tells us, he has tried to write so that Mahony’s response to these imagined events, and indeed the actions of other characters borrowed from reality, is “in character,” or at least plausible.

Mahony is not alone; the book abounds in real characters, drawn from the church, American politics and the American media – the worlds most familiar to the author. Apart from Roger Mahony; Pope Benedict, the current US President and Secretary of Defense, Cardinal Re of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Bertone of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the filmmaker Michael Moore, the retired Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, Sr Joan Chittister and a host of others all have speaking parts of greater or lesser significance.

Fictional characters to carry the plot along

There are fictional characters as well; there have to be, in order to carry the plot along. In particular, the villains of the piece have to be fictional. So we have a fictional Archbishop of Philadelphia, a fictional chancellor of the Diocese of Los Angeles, and so forth.

The book has an entertaining plot, which I don’t want to give away. It’s enough to say that it’s a ripping yarn. But this book is not really plot-driven; the plot is mostly just a vehicle for Kaiser to lay out his vision of how the American church could be, and how it might get there from where it is today. So we can excuse a few gaps and implausibilities. . . .

No articulate case for a conservative vision

But fun can slip over into indulgence. There are a number of television discussions about the future of the church between progressive and conservative Catholics; invariably the progressives score astute and witty points, while the conservatives end up spluttering or floundering. And the most prominent opponents of the conservative vision turn out to be motivated by financial corruption and sexual hypocrisy. Sympathetic as I am to Kaiser’s vision, all this is gratifying to me, but it is a bit of a cop-out. Despite the set-piece debates nobody ever puts an articulate case for a conservative vision, or even subjects Kaiser’s vision to any serious critique.

The result, ironically, is that Kaiser’s vision of the church is not explored as fully as it might be. Kaiser’s characters argue, for instance, that the American church doesn’t need the pope’s permission to govern itself in disciplinary matters, while remaining fully in communion. I can’t help suspecting that the true position is more nuanced than that, though. The pope's permission may not be needed, but his agreement certainly is.

I think this book is more likely to please those who already share Kaiser’s vision than it is to win over those who don’t. But its purpose may not be to win people over, so much as to encourage the true believers, and to suggest that the possibility of change could be closer than it sometimes seems. While the imagined events which lead Mahony to change his mind are fairly far-fetched, the real point is that a change of heart by just one influential church leader could have far-reaching results.

Just how far-reaching? Well, Kaiser doesn’t say. Mahony starts the iceberg rolling, but when the book rather abruptly ends it hasn’t settled in a new alignment. In fact, the really big waves are just beginning. In an afterword, Kaiser encourages the reader to “stand by for the sequel.” But I’m not convinced that he intends to write another novel. Remember, what Kaiser has written is “reality fiction”; a sequel doesn’t have to come from the “fiction” element of that expression. A novel is a work of the imagination, but imagination is also the foundation for new realities; Kaiser may be encouraging us to look to the real world for the next chapter in the church’s story.

To read Peregrinus’s review of Cardinal Mohony - A Novel in its entirety, click here.

To read Brian Coyne’s review of Cardinal Mahony - A Novel, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church

Opening Image: Robert Blair Kaiser by Michael Bayly.

Still Gay

Continuing with The Wild Reed’s series of gay-themed advertisements from around the world, here’s a humorous one for

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
An Israeli Gay-themed Advertisement
If the Jeans Fit . . .
Simple Yet Powerful
One Out of Ten
A Beer Ad with a Difference
Those Europeans are at it Again