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Sometimes faith is actually funny: 6-30-17

With all the serious stuff going on, it's been hard to find time to laugh recently. But laugh we should and laugh we must if we are to maintain any sense of sanity.

DoglassSo today we'll take a breather and heave your way a few faith-based jokes. When I do this I feel compelled the remind you that these are not original with me but are borrowed from various sources, including some of you. You can tell they aren't original with me by the fact that if they were original with me they'd be funnier.

Right? Of course.

At any rate, here we go:

1. Two boys were walking home from Sunday school after hearing strong preaching about the devil. One kid said to the other, "What do you thing about all this Satan stuff?" The other boy replied, "Well, you remember how Santa Claus turned out. So it's probably just your Dad."

2. Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mother, "Why is the bride dressed in white?'' The mother replied, "Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life." The child thought about this for a moment then said, "So why is the groom wearing black?"

3. Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers. The first boy says, "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him $50."

The second boy says, "That's nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on piece of paper, he calls it a song, they give him $100."

The third boy says, "I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"

4. It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Johnny stayed home from church with a sitter. When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Johnny asked them what they were for.

"People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by," his father told him.

"Wouldn't you know it," Johnny fumed. "The one Sunday I don't go and he shows up."

(Why is there a picture of a dog here today? He's representing his faith -- pant-theism.)

* * *


In Australia, "no religion" has become the top choice of a majority of citizens. That group is growing in the U.S., too, though it does make you wonder exactly what people are rejecting. My guess is they're rejecting a lot of what people of faith also reject.

A foolish Supreme Court religion decision: 6-29-17

A few days ago the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that got less press than its agreement to hear the Trump travel ban case, decided it was OK for a church in Columbia, Mo., to receive tax dollars.

Church-stateIt was a terrible decision that rams a metaphorical tank into the church-state separation wall. (The editorial board of The Kansas City Star, on which I used to serve, wrote this editorial and got it wrong, something I don't say very often.)

As the Associated Press story to which I've linked you above reports, the court ruled that "churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for new playground surfaces and other non-religious needs. By a 7-2 vote, the justices sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, which had sought a grant to put a soft surface on its preschool playground. . .(T)he state’s Department of Natural Resources rejected the application, pointing to the part of the state constitution that says 'no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.' A recycled scrap tire is not religious, the church said in its Supreme Court brief. 'It is wholly secular,' the church said."

(Trinity, by the way, is part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, not the larger Mainline denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)

This Bloomberg column, unlike the court and The Star, gets it right: "It’s the first time the court has used the free exercise clause of the Constitution to require a direct transfer of taxpayers’ money to a church. In other words, the free exercise clause has trumped the establishment clause, which was created precisely to stop government money going to religious purposes. Somewhere, James Madison is shaking his head in disbelief."

One way to think about all of this is to remember that money is fungible. Which is to say that if the church doesn't have to spend a certain amount of its own money to resurface its playground but can get tax dollars for the purpose, it can use its own money to pay pastors, to buy biblical teaching material, to stage a revival.

So the Supreme Court is supremely wrong to suggest that material needed to resurface a playground is "wholly secular." Far from it.

There's no telling what the next case will be that will open up the door even further to using tax dollars to support religious groups. Will it lead to the widespread use of vouchers so parents can pull their kids out of public schools and put them into parochial (meaning religious) schools? (A Tuesday ruling by the court moves the country in that very (mis)direction.) Should taxpayers fund the cost of rebuilding church pulpits because, after all, wooden lecterns are "wholly secular"?

The American people should make it clear that this kind of precedent is unworthy and should not stand. In fact, the Columbia church would do everyone a favor by deciding not to take the tax money and to say publicly that it was wrong to pursue this case.

* * *


You may (or may not) recall the recent Flatland column I did about the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., about his role in trying to hold his on-the-edge-of-schism denomination together. Now Atlantic Magazine has done this interesting piece about how Adam tries to hold together his own 20,000-member congregation when it comes to divisive political issues. Adam has told me that he can't and doesn't please everyone in his sermons, but that's not because he himself is schismatic.

What kind of music does God like? 6-28-17

Paola, Kan. -- My life was filled with a wide variety of religious music this past weekend, and that variety was a good reminder of the many different ways that our ears, hearts and souls respond to music.

Paola-1There's no right or wrong music (well, except maybe if it's me singing, though usually I can carry a tune). There is, however, a stunning smorgasbord of music available to faith communities. And sometimes it's the music that keeps people coming, just as sometimes it's the music that drives them away.

On Saturday evening, I was here in the downtown square of Paola southwest of Kansas City because one of my grandsons, Jacob, who is 12, was playing the drums for a praise band from a Baptist church in nearby Louisburg. Jacob's family attends a United Methodist church, but it turns out there's precious little difference between Baptist and Methodist drumming.

So we sat outdoors on a lovely evening and listened to what sometimes gets derided as "7-11 music," which means seven words or phrases repeated eleven times. That's sort of mean and unfair, but there is a repetitiveness to a lot of modern Christian praise music that gets (at least to me) a little tiresome.

On the other hand, my attention span in listening to Jacob play the drums is quite long because, at his young age, he takes the art seriously and he's really good. (The video here will give you a sense of the music that evening and you can see Jake on the far right playing the drums.)

Only 14 or so hours after the music in Paola, we had much more music than usual in our worship service at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City because we were saying farewell to the woman who has been our choir director. She's getting married and moving to the Pacific Northwest, so as part of our thank you to Stacy Van Hoecke for her musical leadership with us, we were marinated in lovely music, including "Pilgrim's Hymn" by Stephen Paulus, "Bonse Aba," a traditional Zambian song, and "I'll Fly Away," by Craig Courtney.

This was all music with special meaning to Stacy, and it was a lively and moving morning. Stacy even did a solo of the lovely old hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing?"

And on Sunday evening I attended The Open Table, a dinner church, to hear my friend the Rev. Donna Simon speak. There I heard sacred music from a guitar, piano, drums and voice that included the "Turn, Turn, Turn" song made popular by the Byrds in the 1960s and based on a chapter in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Over the years I have known people who have chosen to focus on their personal choice of sacred music so narrowly that they seem to make themselves miserable when some other kind of music is introduced. I just don't get that. Of course I want music played and sung with competence in a worship setting, but mostly I want people to understand that it's another tool for praising God whether it's done perfectly or not.

Sacred music -- whether the 7-11 variety or the soaring classical hymns of grandeur -- is meant to augment and undergird worship, not be the cause of division.

Can someone write a hymn about that?

* * *


In other U.S. Supreme Court news, the court has agreed to take up a case of a baker who wants the freedom to discriminate against gay couples who want to buy a wedding cake from him. The whole idea of such discrimination seems ridiculous in the face of the court's ruling that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. This is like Jefferson Davis claiming to be president of the South in 1875 or so.

Both religion and government face institutional crises: 6-27-17

For the last 50 or 60 years, Americans have seen their religious institutions challenged, rejected and sometimes even threatened with extinction.

Crisis-managementMainline Protestant churches and the Catholic Church constitute Exhibit A, the former with their plunging membership numbers and the latter with the loss of trust from members because of the scandal of priests who abused children and of the bishops who hid their crimes.

For the last six-plus months something similar has put many of Americans’ governmental institutions on the defensive — institutions (including the presidency) that until recently have appeared to be deeply rooted enough to survive almost any storm, even presidents threatening the Constitution they’re obligated to defend.

Among the institutions to have their foundations shaken, rattled and/or rolled in the Donald Trump presidency are the Electoral College, Congress, the courts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department, the Congressional Budget Office, our several intelligence agencies and even the presidency itself. Plus, of course, our two major political parties, both of which have proven to be largely empty suits.

In short, the U.S. is experiencing a widespread institutional crisis, and I haven’t even mentioned our on-life-support health care system or the economic system that got pummeled starting almost 10 years ago and has only partly recovered.

Can we learn anything about how such challenges to governmental structures by looking at ways in which religious institutions have been earthquaked?

First, let’s recognize that when institutions lose their public support, vibrancy and capacity to adapt to new realities, they are not always toast, but that’s usually the way to bet.

It’s unclear what eventually will remain of Protestantism, which used to include a supermajority of Americans. Nor is it yet clear whether the Catholic Church in America can regain the trust of people in the pews, especially those who’ve been astonished and bruised by such developments as Robert W. Finn, then bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, being found guilty in court for failing to let law enforcement authorities know of sexual abuse by one of his priests and Finn’s eventual resignation.

The Catholic Church has made lots of changes for the better in how it protects children, and Protestant churches have been trying many new approaches — not just to retain current members and attract younger families but also to reach out to the “nones,” those millions of Americans (almost 25 percent of adults) who, when asked to check which religion on a list is theirs, choose “none of the above.”

These changes have come as a response to the considerable damage done to Catholic and Protestant institutions. Whether the changes will be enough is unknown.

The hard-hit Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, has for the last few years set aside money to fund “1,001 New Worshiping Communities,” including one called “The Open Table” that is growing with help from my own congregation.

The recent sensational testimony to Congress by fired FBI director James Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others has affirmed that some of our governmental institutions are on the receiving end of one blow after another in the Trump era. Trump’s tweets, public statements and the supporting statements from others in the administration have undermined public confidence in governmental institutions. For instance, the administration has tried to ram constitutionally improbable executive orders on immigration through the courts, and although the courts have stood their ground admirably so far, these actions have raised questions about whether the courts can be fatally compromised by another branch of government. The decision yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments about Trump's travel ban while allowing some parts of the ban to proceed will further test the role of the courts.

Can our military remain trustworthy under a president who threatens to use it willy-nilly, including committing more troops to a 16-year-old war that has rarely seemed winnable? Can our public schools survive a secretary of education who advocates policies that threaten them? Can our intelligence services continue to protect us when some in the Trump administration seem to want to work through unofficial back channels that cut out those services?

In a time of national institutional crisis, Americans need to decide which institutions need protection, which need reform and which could use a gentle death. If they don’t, the wrong ones may perish.

* * *


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a statement about the Republican health-care bill under consideration in the Senate. The bishops say the bill would “cause disturbing damage to the human beings served by the social safety net” and that it could “wreak havoc on low-income families and struggling communities, and must not be supported.” Other than that, it's good to go.

* * *

Cover-Value of DoubtP.S.: My latest book, The Value of Doubt, just got a lovely review in The Presbyterian Outlook magazine. Here's a pdf of the review: Download Outlook-Doubt-Review. If you don't yet have a copy, you can get it on Amazon or from your local independent book store or you can e-mail me at and I'll tell you how to get an autographed copy.

How the 6-Day War affected religion: 6-26-17

Jim Rudin, who early in his days as a rabbi worked in Kansas City, has been thinking about the long-term effects of the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel won a quick, stunning victory against the Arab forces bent on the Jewish nation's destruction.

Six-day-warIn this piece written for Religion News Service, Rudin, now the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, writes that the war 50 years ago this month changed followers of both Judaism and Christianity in profound ways and that "in their quest for peace, political and diplomatic leaders who fail to recognize these realities do so at their own peril."

The war, Rudin writes, "intensified profound religious feelings among many Jews as well as evangelical Christians who saw Israel’s 'miraculous' deliverance from destruction as part of God’s messianic plan of redemption."

Well, not all evangelical Christians, but quite a few. Those who believed this was God's work were quick to connect it to the mysterious book of Revelation, the final chapter in the New Testament. Revelation has been a playground for amateur theologians (and some real ones) for a long, long time. And some of the thinking of especially those amateurs has created lots of angst, misguided modern prophecies and even violence, as the case of the Branch Davidians shows, though in that case the final violence and death of dozens of people can be laid mostly at the doorstep of U.S. government agencies. (I documented that assertion in a series of articles I wrote for The Kansas City Star a year after the fire in which so many Branch Davidians died. You can find those articles in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.)

Many Jews, of course, were thrilled that the war meant that the Western Wall and Temple Mount were back under Jewish oversight, if not control. And, Rudin writes, "even for secular Jews who did not share a sense of redemption, Israel became much more than a heroic nation-state that successfully defeated its enemies. Now, millions of Jews perceived Israel as a vital component of their ethnic and personal identity."

The struggle to find a road to peace in the Middle East -- and especially an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a subset -- inevitably requires that negotiators understand the religious dynamics at play. So Rudin right when he suggests that if you get that wrong you can make no progress at all and may, in fact, make things worse. Let's hope diplomats in the Trump administration are gaining some clue about all of this.

* * *


A Buddhist-based faith movement has been growing impressively in China. But as this New York Times story reports, at this point it's uncertain whether it can change that country or whether that country will compromise its Buddhism. That is always the question that faith communities must ask when they take on public issues. But that should not prevent them from using their prophetic voices to speak on behalf of good public morals and ethics.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column, about "dinner churches," has posted here.

Can faith survive an era of non-joiners? 6-24/25-17

In my latest Flatland column, which posted here this morning, I describe some efforts by Mainline Protestant churches to create new expressions of worship as a response to the decades-long decline in their membership numbers.

UCC_logoYou can read about The Open Table and other Mainline responses there.

But this weekend here on the blog I want to connect you to a description of what that decline has felt like over 17 years from inside the United Church of Christ. In this piece the departing vice chair of UCC's Council for Health and Human Services Ministry describes the pain (and occasional joys) of working as a church bureaucrat inside a sliding denomination. The Rev. J. Bennett Guess writes:

". . . things have changed in ways that I and others never anticipated. We’ve seen constant reductions in force, down to 120 staff now, a shadow of our former selves. We have lost nearly 500,000 members nationally, from 1.4 million then to about 900,000 now.

"Our hotel is up for sale, two floors of offices await outside tenants, and the chapel sits empty more often than it is used, because we no longer bring together hundreds of visitors weekly like we once did. Budgets are smaller, and ways of gathering and staffing are changing. We still talk about the need to build trust and break down silos, as much as ever.

"Yet, to be clear, our reality is not unlike the Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or the VFW, Lions and Rotarians. Even Optimist Clubs seem less optimistic these days. We’re caught in a downward spiral that all once-formidable membership organizations are experiencing, no matter their political or religious bent. Joining, just for the sake of joining, is no longer in vogue."

And yet, he writes, there still are things to celebrate: "We are imperfect people committed to building a more-perfect world, and that’s enough to get me out of bed most mornings. But the good news is that God’s work in the world doesn’t depend on how I happen to feel about it on any given day."

One of the issues he describes is the reality that younger individuals and families today simply aren't the joiners that their parents and grandparents were. This, as Guess notes, has affected organizations way beyond faith communities. But if those religious communities can't come to terms with how to minister to non-joiners, they will continue to slip away. And with them the marvelous ministry to the needy that many of them do.

* * *


It's starting to look as if ISIS is acknowledging that it has lost Mosul and faces complete defeat, this New Yorker story reports. Which sounds like terrific news, but the radicalism that ISIS represents still lives and breathes in its demented Islamism, and it's clear that its ideology has metastasized to other areas and to individuals around the world. So even if ISIS goes away as an entity, its radicalism almost certainly will live on for a time. Perhaps a very long time.

A non-Catholic sexual abuse scandal: 6-23-17

The horrific scandal in the Catholic Church of priests abusing children and bishops covering up for them exploded into nationwide view in 2002 when the Boston Globe began reporting the story, though the National Catholic Reporter had been writing about the problem for some time before that (and even today keeps an online section regularly renewed with developments).

ABWEFrom time to time over those years I have written in various venues that sexual abuse of many kinds has occurred in other faith traditions, though because of the scattered nature of the governance structures of those traditions it was harder to document or to coagulate developments into a coherent narrative.

But The New Republic has just published this remarkable and distressing story about how various fundamentalist Christian churches and groups have experienced the same sort of abuse by clergy and cover-up of crimes that formed the main story line in Catholicism.

"Over the past five years, in fact," the story by Kathryn Joyce reports, "it has become increasingly clear — even to some conservative Christians — that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. . .

"This burgeoning crisis of abuse has received far less attention than the well-documented scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. That’s in part because the evangelical and fundamentalist world, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, is diverse and fractious, composed of thousands of far-flung denominations, ministries, parachurch groups, and missions like ABWE. Among Christian evangelicals, there is no central church authority to investigate, punish, or reform. Groups like ABWE answer only to themselves."

ABWE? That, the story notes, is "the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism; its goal was to create a 'militant, missionary-minded, Biblically separate haven of Fundamentalism.' Little known outside the world of Christian fundamentalists, ABWE is among the largest missionary groups in the United States, deploying more than 900 Baptists to 70 countries."

The New Republic piece focuses on one particular young girl who was molested by an ABWE leader in Bangladesh and on how he got away with it for decades with her and others. It's a long, disheartening tale, but I commend it to you -- especially to those of you who imagine that somehow predatory clergy are found only in Catholicism and that such things rarely happen in Christian communities that would identify as fundamentalist or conservative.

In the end, a major job of faith communities is to protect the precious children under their care. Which means it's the job of all adults, including parents, to be especially mindful of things that seem amiss and to bring those things to the attention of authorities, including law enforcement.

Just because people profess a belief in a loving God doesn't mean they are immune from sexual sins and crimes.

* * *


Here is one more reason we should encourage religious literacy: It could save lives. As this article notes, Muslims who have health issues are not required to stick to the Ramadan fast (Ramadan for this year is now almost over). But physicians who don't know about the fast may treat Muslim patients inappropriately. Even people who are not affiliated with any religious tradition should know basic information about as many religions as possible.

* * *

P.S.: As U.S. senators review the newly released Republican health care proposal, I hope they keep in mind that every piece of legislation is in some sense a moral document. Does this one pass that test? That's the question to ask. Here is the text of the proposal.

The Nichols Fountain controversy: 6-22-17

In the mid-1970s I was working on several series of articles for The Kansas City Star about how racial turnover happened in residential parts of the city and about how conventional mortgage lenders had essentially red-lined 50 square miles of the central city, meaning almost no one trying to buy a house there could get a conventional mortgage.

Nichols-fountainThat work meant I spent days and days and even weeks going through real estate property deeds in the office of the county recorder in the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City. Which introduced me to the restrictive racial covenants that were part of many of those deeds until eventually such discriminatory practices were ruled unlawful by the courts. When these covenants were in effect, they meant that owners of the houses in question were forbidden from selling to African-Americans, Jews and others deemed by developers to be unwanted neighbors.

In this column this past weekend, my former Star colleague Steve Kraske suggested that it's time to remove the name of J.C. Nichols from the fountain named after him on the Country Club Plaza. Why? Well, Nichols and his highly influential development company regularly used restrictive covenants to protect the neighborhoods he was building so they wouldn't have to put up with the perceived indignity of the presence of blacks and others who might want to buy there.

"He (Nichols) was far from the only developer who relied on those deeds during the 1930s and '40s," Kraske wrote. "But Nichols wielded them with particular effectiveness." In fact, such restrictive covenants are a prime reason that Troost Avenue has been the de facto racial dividing line in Kansas City for decades.

It can be helpful for the health of a community to understand its history and to acknowledge what went wrong while also pledging to do things right from here and then focusing less on the past and more on the future. A good example of that is what happened last month at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

As Jacob Lupfer wrote in a blog, "Jesuit leaders, Archdiocesan officials, and descendants of 272 slaves sold in 1838 to keep the university afloat participated in a Liturgy of Remembrance and a ceremony marking the renaming of two campus buildings."

The idea here is not to obliterate history. The idea, rather, is just not to celebrate what clearly should not be celebrated. It's why Confederate flags were removed from state property in South Carolina. Those flags belong in a museum, not on public property as a celebration of the slavery for which the South fought so hard in the Civil War. (And they don't belong on your damn pickup truck, either.)

Similarly, while libraries and museums, both public and private, should preserve the story of how J.C. Nichols helped to develop strong neighborhoods in a good city, it would be wrong to overlook his insistent use of racially restrictive covenants to help that happen. So Steve Kraske is right about changing the name of that beautiful fountain.

I can testify from personal experience that there is nothing beautiful about reading property deeds that don't allow property to be sold to blacks, Jews or others. Such deeds represent humankind's darker side.

(The photo of the Nichols Fountain here today is by Shane Keyser of The Kansas City Star.)

* * *


The somewhat surprising news that the 31-year-old son of King Salman of Saudi Arabia has been named Crown Prince, removing the king's cousin from that job, eventually may put that country's future into the hands of a much more modern generation (relatively speaking). Mohammed bin Salman, the new Crown Prince, is considered a reformer. But keep in mind that being a reformer in Saudi Arabia is sort of like being a liberal in Mississippi. That would be someone who believes in life after birth. And yet there are needed reforms in the kingdom and in the House of Saud itself, and perhaps such reforms have a better chance under MBS, as the new Crown Prince is known, than under someone else. Whether MBS at some point can liberate the Saudi government from its oversight and influence by the leaders of the rigid Wahhabi sect of Islam that dominates the country is unknown. But don't bet on it -- at least in the short run.

Debunking alternatives to the Big Bang: 6-21-17

This first full day of summer is a perfect time to think about how our cosmos works, with its rhythms and directions rooted in its creation on the day when God declared, "Let there be the Big Bang."

Standard_fullThere is much more that we don't know about creation than what we do know. And sometimes we move forward in our knowledge not by proving certain theories but by rejecting them for valid reasons.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and the Perimeter Institute in Canada have been pondering various theories of how the Big Bang happened most of 14 billion years ago. And even whether it happened or, alternatively, whether there's some other explanation.

They now have declared that the so-called "smooth beginning" alternative theory -- which includes the "no boundary" and "tunneling" versions -- of the moment of creation is bunkum. Well, bunkum is my word -- and a fine word it is.

They simply said the math associated with those alternatives doesn't work, so you have to return to the Big Bang as the most viable alternative so far.

Humankind, from all we can tell, is the only animal to try to come up with explanations for the origin of the universe -- unless that's what cats dream about in the hours and hours and hours they sleep.

I consider human curiosity about this a divine gift. Questions about the physical origin of the cosmos naturally lead to theological questions about the purpose of it all. Which leads to theologians and philosophers. And what is more human than that?

By the way, I stayed up for last night's summer solstice, which occurred at 11:24 p.m. CDT. But apparently the sun didn't think it was such a big deal. It was nowhere to be seen, at least from Kansas City.

The image seen here today came from the website to which I've linked you, and carried this caption:

"Fig. 1: No 'smooth beginning': almost paradoxically, a smooth beginning causes large quantum fluctuations to grow (right), and thus prevents the development of a large universe as we know it (left). © J.-L. Lehners (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics)"

* * *


Ah, there's nothing like newsstand-tabloid newspapers. In England, for instance, The Sun is reporting that a group of Brazilian exorcists made a pact with the devil to murder Pope Francis and that the Vatican is investigating. Maybe this is when a tabloid gets to re-use my favorite headline from a tab years ago: "Eaten by Wolves!" Or not.

A plea to welcome LGBT folks to Catholicism: 6-20-17

Like almost all branches of Christianity, the Catholic Church does not have a long history of being welcoming to gays and lesbians.

Building-bridgeEven today, despite a more enlightened pope who seems open to the idea that sexual orientation is not a choice, the church continues to officially describe homosexuality as "objectively disordered." (See No. 2358 of the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to which I've linked you.) Until the church overturns that description, it's hard to see it as a place to which LGTBQ people might flock for support, inspiration and effective pastoral care.

So it's important to understand that Jesuit priest James Martin is an unusual voice in his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

This small volume is a welcome, if flawed, effort to open up the church and to show LGBT people that there is a place for them there.

Martin, editor at larger of America magazine and author of several books, truly wants the Catholic Church to be a place where gay people feel at home, even though he acknowledges that "the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church."

Conditions are even worse for LGBT people in some places outside America, he notes: "In some countries, a person can be jailed or executed for being gay or having same-sex relations.In those countries, the institutional church has an absolute moral duty to stand up for its brothers and sisters, publicly. Sadly, this does not happen very often, and in fact a few church leaders have supported some of these discriminatory laws."

So Martin gets it. Mostly.

But when it comes to how to reconcile the church and LGBT people -- a schism caused by the church -- Martin seems to place a heavy burden on gays to fix things. Indeed, the work of reconciliation falls nearly as much on gay people as it does on the church, in Martin's view.

He speaks of two lanes on the same bridge and suggests that the gay people on one end have as much of a responsibility as the church leaders on the other end to come together in harmony.

Mostly in that scenario he is referring to LGBT people who already are Catholic, and he says it's their Christian duty to treat the church that has harmed them with love and respect.

The bridge analogy doesn't quite work. It seems to assume that both sides were equally responsible for the current situation. And that, of course, is nonsense.

In fact, the institutional Catholic Church -- like the institutional Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and other Protestant churches -- must bear nearly all, if not, in fact, all, of the blame for the church's failure to treat LGBT people as God's beloved children. Let's not be blaming the victims here.

Some other Christian branches are moving in the right direction, and there are many laudable examples of Catholic ministries to LGBT people. But until the church changes its official description of gays as "objectively disordered," it's hard to imagine how gay people will ever feel at home in the Catholic Church.

Still, Martin's small book can serve as a welcome notice that some leaders in the Catholic Church want change. And although that is not a bridge far enough, it's a start.

* * *


The Southern Baptist Convention is being praised by the Anti-Defamation League for voting to condemn the alt-right for its racism and antisemitism. The SBC's rejection of white supremacy is, of course, also a rejection of its founders' beliefs, given that they were pro-slavery southerners. Every faith tradition has some piece of its history to regret and move beyond.