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Is Pope Francis really changing Catholicism? 9-30-15

Yesterday here in this space I suggested that it will take a fair amount of time before we know what effect the recent visit by Pope Francis to Cuba and the U.S. might be.

Pope-francisSo I was glad to see a similar hesitancy to draw hard conclusions in this piece by David Gibson, an excellent writer for Religion News Service.

"Of all the many questions that Pope Francis has raised in his brief papacy," David wrote, "perhaps none is as insistent, or as crucial to his legacy, as the debate over whether he represents a real change in the church, or if his pontificate, which has heralded so much promise for so many, is just style over substance."

Gibson then noted two areas -- the death penalty and the environment -- in which Francis may be moving toward "real change in the church," as evidenced by things he said in his U.S. visit. It's an intriguing analysis and I commend it to you.

I also commend to you this understanding, as David describes, of how change happens in the Catholic Church -- and, no doubt, in most of the major world religions:

"But how other doctrines develop is a complex matter; it’s not just about a pope waking up one morning and deciding to switch things up. There must be solid arguments developed over many years, a certain accord with the sense of all the faithful, and the assent of much of the hierarchy as well. Change in the church is about realizing more clearly a truth that already existed."

The pace of such change can be frustrating, of course, but it's a lot easier on our nerves and spirits if we acknowledge the reality of that pace and not drive ourselves crazy trying to move a mountain all at once when, it turns out, the only way to do that is by one spoonful of dirt at a time. And it's much more satisfactory for the Catholic Church if it has a pope who speaks for the church and not just to it.

* * *


I see nothing at all wrong with members of Congress getting together on a regular basis to pray for the nation. But I see plenty wrong with the fact that taxpayers' money is being used to support the work of the congressional Prayer Caucus. The story to which I've linked you reports that "the taxpayer-funded congressional Prayer Caucus meets in an ornate room in the U.S. Capitol to defend the role of (mostly) Christian faith and prayer in the U.S. government." You may or may not agree with the group's goal. And if it's a private group not being supported by public funds, it doesn't much matter whether you agree or disagree. But this strikes me as a misuse of taxes and I hope this kind of publicity will lead to an end to public subsidy for this.

* * *

P.S.: Normally my next National Catholic Reporter column would post today. But because editors have been buried in work because of the visit to Cuba and the U.S. of Pope Francis, the column will be delayed one week. My previous NCR columns are here.

The meaning of pope's visit? Not yet: 9-29-15


Pope Francis has been gone from the U.S. hardly any time at all but already we're seeing ponderous analyses of what his visit meant. In fact, we saw and heard them on TV Sunday evening before the pontiff's plane lifted off from Philadelphia.

It reminds me of something Maya Angelou used to say when someone said to her, "I'm a Christian." Her response usually was, "Already?"

The fact is that we won't know for quite some time what, if any, effect, Pope Francis had on the U.S., on American Catholics, on Congress, on the United Nations or on any other person or organization (well, except maybe John Boehner). It takes time for such effects to become manifest, visible, measurable.

For instance, my instant reaction to the pontiff's address to Congress was that it was a worthy speech urging civilized discussion and rational law-making but it will be utterly ignored by lawmakers who are bitterly divided and who seem to be heading toward even more bitter divisions after the surprise resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, who has been what passes for a moderate in the Republican Party these days.

But I hope I'm wrong. I hope that the pope's words might get at least a few elected officials to put away their sharp verbal knives and recognize the common humanity in people with whom they have serious policy differences as well as in the people they've been elected to serve. We'll see. But we won't see today. Or tomorrow. Just eventually.

Similarly, I hope this gentle pope's ability to express welcome to everyone, whether Catholic or not, will help people of various religious traditions find ways to respect one another and work together on matters of common interest. My latest book can be a tool for such work. It's called Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church, co-authored with the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock.

It's just a guess, but I'm inclined to think that my friend and National Catholic Reporter colleague Tom Roberts may have been right when he wrote that perhaps the most important remarks Francis gave here were said to U.S. bishops.

As Tom wrote, "In five intense paragraphs mid-homily, Francis laid out an insistent call for dialogue – with everyone and in all directions – and explained what he considered the requirements for 'authentic dialogue.' He also rejected 'harsh and divisive language' which may temporarily satisfy but does not persuade in the long run. Though Francis did not state it as such, his 'reflections' on the matter were the clearest repudiation to date of the style of some U.S. bishops who have become characterized as 'culture warriors,' loudly condemning the culture and often its leaders and others who voice disagreement with or challenge church positions."

The question, of course, is whether bishops -- some of whom were clearly part of the problem in the sex abuse scandal -- are any more amenable to reason than others, including members of Congress. We'll see.

The people of Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia had the most opportunity to see Francis up close but because of saturation coverage on television and through other media, all of us who cared to tune in felt we had good seats from which to watch Francis.

But just as a sermon may be heard on Sunday but not received in the heart until Thursday, so our experience of Francis will need to be processed and mulled over.

This is not a popular thing to do in our instant-gratification culture, but without time to think about all this, we may miss the importance of the trip altogether. What was clear was that this pope is a profoundly decent human being with excellent leadership instincts. And he understands that Christianity is not about massive cathedrals and sharply worded doctrine but about the terribly difficult task of following the admonition of Jesus to love self and love neighbor as a response of gratitude for the way in which God loves us.

[Here are the cutlines that ran with the above photo on Pope Francis arrives to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for a meeting with U.S. bishops Sept. 23 in Washington. (CNS/Jonathan Newton, pool)]

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In one of the last stops in the U.S., Pope Francis urged people not to be so "narrow" in their faith. That's pretty much the opposite of the theology promoted by the previous pope, Benedict XVI. I'm with Francis on this one, but avoiding narrowness doesn't mean anything goes. It means, rather, showing some humility about what you think you know. It means learning from others. It means understanding as deeply as you can your own faith and your own faith tradition. And it means sometimes being willing to say, "I was wrong."

Wait. Martin Luther said what? 9-28-15

One day last week at a Bible study group I help to lead, I found myself saying something I've said lots more than once and something I really believe: If, when you go to bed at night, you don't feel a little more ignorant than when you got up in the morning, you're not doing life right.

LutherThen I came home and read this interesting column, "Trashing Luther," about Martin Luther (seen here in his high school graduation photo), written by my friend Russ Saltzman, who for quite a long time was a Lutheran pastor but now is a Catholic layman. He knows a lot, especially about how the Bible came to be.

In the article, Russ takes note of a blog entry by someone else. That blog posting seems to get a lot of things about Luther wrong. Or at least it gets them jumbled up and tends to mislead readers.

One of the things Russ points out is something I thought I knew -- indeed, something I was sure I knew and was not hesitant to pass on to others. Which is that Martin Luther considered the New Testament book of James "an epistle of straw." Meaning, of course, he didn't like it much.

"Yes," Russ writes, "he did, once.

"In his original preface introducing James in his German translation of the Bible, Luther said exactly that. He complained the book wasn’t Christological and therefore possibly not Apostolic. He had good company.

"As late as AD 325, James was among six 'disputed' books in Eusebius’s The Church History (2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation). While James may be read almost as a parody of St. Paul, in the same preface Luther nonetheless noted it had many good sayings, adding, 'I praise it and hold it a good book.' The 'straw' remark was removed by Luther in subsequent editions."

Well, I'll be darned. I did not know that Luther removed the "straw" remark. And now that I know that my life has become ever-so-slightly more complicated, for now if I wish to quote Luther about the book of James being straw, I have to stretch out the story and qualify it and make it clear that eventually even Luther didn't much believe Luther on that point.

So that night I went to bed feeling good about having learned something but feeling a bit apprehensive (read: ignorant) about what else I think I know that could be bunk or could need some modification.

That feeling is an excellent corrective for the ego. So it's probably a good thing that when our Bible study group gathers this week, our plan is to start digging into the book of Ecclesiastes. The second verse of the very first chapter of that book says, in the King James Version, "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity."

That preacher may be right, but today I am less vain about what I think I know about Martin Luther.

(The New International Version translates that vanities line this way: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Not true. If it were, Luther wouldn't have bothered to remove the word "straw," which he was pretty sure meant something.)

* * *


Pope Francis met on Sunday in Philadelphia with some people who are survivors of sexual abuse by priests. Listen to his words: "God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer. I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable." If only that had been the attitude of the whole of the Catholic hierarchy from the first evidence of the first abuse decades ago. At least this pope is saying the right thing. And there are lots of eyes on him and the church generally to make sure those words reflect reality. (Speaking of this pope, here's a link to my new book about him.)

What our systems do to black families: 9-26/27-15

The reverberations continue from the panel discussion I moderated earlier this month on racism, incarceration and policing.

AtlanticAnd some of that is thanks to the ground-breaking, piercing writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

Coates has pieces in the September and October issues of the magazine that speak to these issues with profound clarity.

His September piece, "Letter to My Son," is adapted from his new book Between the World and Me.

His article in the October issue, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," offers a distressing look at the ways in which the criminal justice system in the U.S. has been dealing with blacks for centuries, ways that now have resulted in our system of mass incarceration:

"In absolute terms, America' prison and jail population from 1970 until today has increased sevenfold, from some 300,000 people to 2.2 million. The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world's inhabitants -- and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants. In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated -- 10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers."

Something obviously has gone terribly wrong, and the admonition from the world's great religions that all people should be treated with equal respect and dignity has been violated left and right in our American system of criminal justice.

All of this is not without historical context, and Coates supplies that, especially in the October article.

But it's also not without personal consequences for individuals, and that is what Coates focuses on in the September letter to his son:

"I write to you in your 15th year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . .The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions."

Please understand that I do not hold all police officers to be guilty of such behavior. Not at all. Nor does Coates. But these problems have deep roots that include the 250 years in which black people in the U.S. were slaves and considered property, as well as the 150 years since then when black people often were considered second-class citizens who should be kept out of white neighborhoods. Coates describes much of that in painful detail.

So I hope you will take the time (these are not short pieces) to read Coates and draw your own conclusions. More than that, I hope you will think about ways your own faith community, if any, can become part of the solution. Religious groups in the past often have been part of the problem, instead. That must end.

(P.S.: From 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, the Social Justice & Peacemaking Committee of Second Presbyterian Church at 55th and Brookside will hold a discussion of Coates' book, Between the World and Me, in the church parlor. Free. Open to the public.)

* * *


As a Protestant, I'm always interested to hear how other Protestants view and relate to other kinds of Christians and people of other (and no) faith traditions. Along that line, the Southern Baptist-connected survey folks at LifeWay Research wondered how Protestants of various sorts view Pope Francis, and they came up with various conclusions reported here. On the whole, Protestants have a positive view of Francis, the research found. And yet it's fascinating to me -- but not surprising -- that each person and each group of people tends to view the pope's words through the lenses brought to the task. For instance, the pope's talk to Congress the other day did not sit well with some Southern Baptists, who seem to wish the pontiff were a Baptist. Here's the Baptist Press story reporting what some of them said. In my new book, co-authored with Paul Rock, we offer some suggestions for ways that Protestants and Catholics can understand each other better. I hope you'll get a copy (or an e-version) and join those of us trying to break down the barriers that have caused hostilities for most of 500 years.

When corporations are dishonest: 9-25-15

Time after time, huge corporations cheat, lie, steal, engage in despicable behavior in other ways -- and think they can get away with it in the long run.

VWSometimes they do get away with it, at least in the short run. But unethical behavior almost inevitably leads to discovery and punishment.

The latest example -- breath-taking in its scope and its brazen nature -- is Volkswagen's years of lies about emissions on its diesel cars. It led to the resignation of VW CEO Martin Winterkorn earlier this week.

As this New York Times piece reports, the Volkswagen criminality is on a financial scale with the BP oil spill of a few years ago.

I know this kind of corporate behavior shouldn't shock or mystify me. Corporations, after all, are run by fallible human beings who are almost always and everywhere tempted to engage in actions that the world's great religions would condemn as unethical and even sinful.

But I still wind up slapping my forehead in disbelief when I hear about something like Volkswagen or the troubles that General Motors and Toyota got into because of a failure to do the right thing promptly (or in the first place).

The old adage that honesty is the best policy probably would be taken more seriously by the corporate world if leaders of that world understood that honesty is the best financial policy. In the long run, dishonesty costs money -- sometimes tons of it, to say nothing of the costs in reputation.

The first piece I linked you to above, from the Christian Science Monitor, describes how another German company that had engaged in unethical behavior has turned itself around now. So maybe there's hope for VW. But what the hell would be wrong with honesty in the first place?

* * *


Pope-congressIn his address to Congress yesterday, Pope Francis got a standing ovation when he mentioned the Golden Rule. No doubt translators later had to explain to some elected officials that the pontiff was talking about behavior and not monetary policy. I did notice that when Francis said that "America continues to be, for many, a land of dreams," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this time wasn't, like at the last State of the Union address, among those dreaming with her eyes closed. And when the pope talked about "righting wrongs," I had to check the text to make sure he wasn't referring to Congress "writing wrongs" through the laws it passes. He wasn't. It was an excellent speech, but I'm glad it wasn't given by one of several religious leaders I can think of who, after making their remarks, would have tried to take up a collection. (Finally, here's the Amazon link to my new book about the pope.)

A low-key approach to same-sex marriage: 9-24-15

Over the weekend, my wife and I attended two joyful receptions to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of good friends to her same-sex partner.

HomosexualityEvents like this will become more and more common until, finally, same-sex marriage will mostly disappear as a hot-button culture wars issue, except perhaps among people who would consider themselves biblical literalists or fundamentalists.


But, if I can turn to my own denomination for a bit, the truth is that we Presbyterians have been beating each other about the head and shoulders for years over questions related to human sexuality.

It’s time to stop — and not just because the U.S. Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage to be legal in all 50 states, pleasing those of us who have long favored that result.

Rather, it’s time for some humility from all sides as the broader American community figures out how to live in harmony in a country in which opinions about homosexuality have changed remarkably in the last 20 years. We need to give each other space. And we need to understand what’s really changed and what hasn’t.

In 1993, the year before President Bill Clinton announced a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy for gays in the military, I wrote a lengthy commentary for The Kansas City Star outlining why I thought our historic religious and social hostility to the LGBTQ community was wrong. I received more response to that than anything I’d written in the previous 23 years for the paper — some angry and threatening, some relieved and complimentary.

From that vantage point, I could not have imagined that by 2015, my denomination would have allowed ordination of otherwise qualified gays and lesbians and allowed our pastors to perform same-sex weddings where it’s legal. Nor could I have imagined the Supreme Court decision rendered this past June.

But that is our reality now. In response, those of us who favored such changes would do well to show some modesty and love toward those who continue to be against them. For the most part, such people are not bigots or religious fanatics. Rather, they still believe what the church universal taught for centuries. (I have an essay on this blog explaining why I think the church was wrong. It’s here.)

I have found it helpful to remind people who were against the Supreme Court’s decision that it changes nothing about Christian marriage. The church still must be the one to define that. The court had no authority to do so — and didn’t. What it did say is that homosexual couples now have equal rights under the civil law when it comes to the privileges and responsibilities of marriage. But the court couldn’t force any faith community to marry any couple it didn’t want to.

Confusion about this matter has been exacerbated by the fact that in most wedding ceremonies two marriages occur. One is a civil wedding in which the pastor acts as an agent of the state. The other is a religious ceremony in which the faith community blesses the union.

It would be useful to separate those in all cases so that everyone — gay or straight — who wants to be married would first be required to have a civil ceremony. Then, any couples wanting the blessing of a faith community could ask for that. And that community would be free to say no, even as it sometimes has said no to straight couples that the presiding pastor did not think were ready to tie the knot.

Eventually — and I think sooner rather than later — this whole issue, as I say, will mostly disappear, much as opposition to racially integrated lunch counters and hotels finally disappeared when the laws and the courts addressed the problem in a definitive way.

I am not suggesting that 10 years from now we will find most PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) or EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) congregations offering same-sex marriages to members. That would surprise me. But who knows?

What I do know is that if those of us who advocated marriage equality and who were perhaps a bit overly joyful at the Supreme Court ruling this summer adopt an ungracious winner’s attitude, the resistance to change will strengthen.

Instead, let’s have a bit of cordial silence so that wounds may heal. Well, silence except for those of us who, in the proper venue, did and continue to cheer for Caitlin and Lydia.

* * *


One question people have asked now that Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. is whether there really is a "Francis effect" among American Catholics. Religion observer and scholar Mark Silk says the answer is yes, for several reasons. I'll explore that question a bit in a piece that will run this Saturday in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star. In the meantime, you can look into the matter by reading the new book I've written with my pastor, Paul Rock: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

A Yom Kippur model, but no hero: 9-23-15

On this Yom Kippur, let's back up 50 years to Yom Kippur 1965, when one of baseball's greatest pitchers ever, Sandy Koufax, elected not to pitch in game one of the World Series that year because it fell on the Jewish holiday.

KoufaxEver since, Koufax has been a role model not just for Jews but also for people of many (and no) faith traditions who simply want to find an example of someone acting out beliefs in an authentic way that is inspiring and not destructive.

And, so, yes, good for Koufax. And good for all the people he's inspired over the years.

But let's think a bit more deeply about what he did, why he did it and how the world has reacted to all of that.

In essence, Sandy Koufax did exactly what he should have done. No more, no less. He honored his tradition, behaved in the respectful way he was taught to behave and kept his priorities straight.

It is a measure of how often people don't do what they should that lots of people honor Koufax as a hero. And yet doing what you're supposed to do should not be the standard by which heroism is measured. Doing your job, sticking to your beliefs, honoring your own faith tradition by abiding by its precepts should be the norm, not the exception.

Was the World Series a big deal 50 years ago? You bet. Maybe more than it is today. So the circumstances in which Sandy Koufax made the right decision were unusual. But what it meant was merely that Koufax pitched in game two, not game one of the series.

Still, given the dearth of role models for doing what is expected of us, doing what we should do, I'm glad Sandy made the right choice in 1965, I'm glad he's still around today and I'm glad I don't have to put him in the same category of people who went way above and beyond what they were expected to do by saving a life, rescuing the lost or protecting the innocent -- people who truly deserve the heroism label.

* * *


As Pope Francis landed in Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon, the waiting crowd sang “Louie, Louie” and “Sweet Caroline.” Oh, my. This man has a tougher pastoral job here ahead of him than he imagined. Well, it could have been worse. I could have been there with my co-author singing the introduction to our new book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

* * *

P.S.: It deeply saddens me to report the death yesterday of Phyllis Tickle, one of the great religious thinkers and observers of our time, whose best-known book was The Great Emergence. I'd just shared some e-mail with her earlier this month thanking her for writing a wonderful back-cover endorsement of my new pope book mentioned above, and now she's gone. Sigh.

Welcome to a pope bringing hope: 9-22-15

When Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. today, he will bring with him something even the most alert customs agent won't be able to spot by doing a careful scan of his luggage -- hope. It's what a Cuban woman interviewed on NBC news over the weekend identified as the most important thing the pontiff brought there. To the U.S. he will bring:

Pope-cover* Hope for a church struggling to recover from a destructive scandal involving priests abusing young people and bishops covering up their deeds.

* Hope for people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

* Hope that one of the most hierarchical religious structures on the planet can have a winsome, human face.

* Hope that the pope will have something more interesting, more worthy, more important and more eternal to say than what's currently being heard from the crowded field of America's presidential aspirants.

This trip also is an opportunity for greater understanding between Catholics and Protestants and among people of all faiths.

So I remind you that there's now a tool available to help with that opportunity -- a seven-week study book I've written with my pastor: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. It was published last week by Westminster John Knox Press, and my hope is that it will lead to good, deep and revealing dialogue as well as a commitment among participants to find common ground for action on behalf of the common good.

As we write in the book, "For almost five hundred years, Catholics and Protestants have been standing together on the common ground of Christ Jesus while at the same time often backed into corners, proclaiming that the other is wrong about what exactly it means to be Christ’s church. This sometimes-bitter divisiveness must break the sacred heart of Jesus, who, in his high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, pleaded for his followers to be one."

So the pontiff's visit to the U.S. provides a great opportunity for all people of faith (and people of no faith at all) to open their hearts and minds to learn what others believe, how they live and how all of us can live together in harmony.

The presidential candidates aren't offering that kind of chance, but this pope is. Let's take advantage of it.

(By the way, I have given you the Amazon link to the book above, but I just discovered that today -- and I think today only -- the book is 40 percent off through "The Thoughtful Christian," which is connected to the publisher, Westminster John Knox Press. For that deal, go here.)

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What are we to make of Ben Carson's contention that no Muslim should ever be president of the U.S.? The word prejudice comes from the concept of pre-judging. That's exactly what Carson is doing here -- along with violating the spirit of the Constitution itself, which says there will be no religious test for public office in the U.S. Besides, lots of misled Americans think the current president is a Muslim. Sigh.

Shaking the Anglicans apart: 9-21-15

Except for a particular kind of electricity, almost nothing in life is static.

Anglican-logoCertainly not in the field of religion, though as I noted here over the weekend, some branches of the Christian religion can be too static for their own good.

But change happens -- sometimes on purpose, sometimes without anyone meaning for it to, sometimes in response to forces that no one seems to control.

Perhaps all of those reasons for change can be seen in the recent revelation by the Archbishop of Canterbury to reorganize the worldwide Anglican Communion, which this Atlantic piece describes as "a calculated destruction intended, paradoxically, to save it."

As The Guardian reported the other day, Archbishop Justin Welby "is proposing to effectively dissolve the fractious and bitterly divided worldwide Anglican communion and replace it with a much looser grouping."

A fair amount of the squabbling within the Anglican Communion has to do with how to approach issues of human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. That matter, in turn, has to do with how one reads scripture. (My essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality can be found here.)

The Episcopal Church, which is the branch of Anglicanism most prominent in the U.S., already ordains otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to be deacons, priests and even bishops and has even created a ceremony for same-sex unions. (It's beautiful. I have witnessed it.)

Much of the Anglican community in Africa and elsewhere is unhappy with what the U.S. church has done, meaning that the Anglican Communion is rattling itself apart. Welby's proposal is simply an acknowledgement of that reality.

Religion News Service reports that the proposal has been well received in Britain, but leaders in Africa aren't so sure and say they need more time to think about it.

Perhaps it's best for global religious structures not to try to be so all-encompassing that they don't stand for much because they make compromises just to keep the peace. Maybe it makes more sense for religious groups to be autonomous and clearly associated with a particular way of being Christian -- or Muslim or Jewish or. . .

That way each group can be authentic and true to its beliefs while also free to engage others who have differing approaches. That may be where the Anglican Communion is headed. And it may be a good thing.

* * *


In his first sermon in Cuba, Pope Francis warned people not to get engaged with what he called a "a dynamic of exclusion.” It's a wise word not just to people in the streets but to the church itself and to religion generally. Not many institutions exclude people more than religious ones when they're at their worst.

Can Protestantism survive? 9-19/20-15

The other day, a reader of my latest National Catholic Reporter column left this response in the comments section:

Episcopal_Shield"Bill, I would be interested in your thoughts about the long-term survivability of the reformation communities. I'm sure you're familiar with the projections that envision many of the mainline Protestant communities not making it into the twenty-second century. Do you think there is a sufficiently well-defined mission for Protestant communities that isn't being absorbed into the emerging Christian groups?"

Oh, my. She has opened up a huge subject that cannot be covered in a blog or column or even a book or two.

Pcusa-crossBut let me make a few brief points to get that conversation started:

* Let's begin by acknowledging that the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s need not have happened and probably shouldn't have had circumstances been slightly different. I wrote about that in this NCR column published in 2013.

* That said, the Reformation helped to create the important idea that the church should be dynamic, not static. As we Presbyterians say, the church is reformed and always reforming.

* But Protestantism itself has become much too static and not dynamic enough. Thoughtful Protestants everywhere are aware of this and are working to create new models of worship and outreach that can respond to this crisis. When I say "new models," I mean no such thing. What I mean is something of a return to the models of church from the original days of the Jesus Movement. I had breakfast the other day with a Lutheran pastor working on exactly that in the Kansas City area. Check out The Table. My congregation is working along the same lines with something called The Open Table.

* It's anyone's guess whether Protestant churches can last into the 22nd Century with vigor and authenticity. But the same is true of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Faith communities that fail to engage the hearts and minds of people asking hard questions of faith will experience death, however slowly it happens. That doesn't mean the death of the Christian story or the desire to follow Jesus, but it may be structural death.

* The Christian story is not about institutions and dogmas. It's about God incarnate living in the midst of broken humanity and offering to redeem the brokenness. Christian faith communities that understand that will thrive. The rest don't deserve to.

* * *


Pope Francis arrives in Cuba on Saturday, and, as he does, analysts are speculating that he could be a major voice in determining the shape of the world's political future. A politically active pope is nothing new, but this pontiff seems to know how to pick his fights. (A great time to read my new book about the pope is while he's in the U.S. this month. Here's the Amazon page.)