What will America's new religions look like?


A few weeks ago I wrote here about new figures from the Pew Research Center verifying the now-decades-old story of the decline of membership in American Christian churches.

The conclusion that lots of people draw from such research is that religion itself is dying. But I think the Catholic author of this Dallas Morning News guest column is right when he says that's a false conclusion.

For starters, it matters what we think religion actually is.

Religion, he argues, is what "holds our attention" and "binds us together." If that's really what religion is (and I like the definition), he says, "then it’s not Christianity. Christianity today is mostly just sentimentality, escapist devotion, mere identity politics and mere posture. It’s no longer religion in any genuine sense. Because what holds our attention today, what binds us together, are no longer dogma and precepts, but instead all those decadent diversions, customs and conventions of our rich but interiorly vacuous society. This is our religion today: binge-watching Netflix, consumption addictions to various social media, pornography and the litanies of endless news, fake or otherwise."


It's a broad brush stroke he's using, but there's a lot of truth in the picture he paints with it.

Somehow lots of Americans (to say nothing of many others around the world) feel they are entitled to be entertained at all hours. In fact, entertained to death. It's why so many people know so much more about the last winner of some TV talent show than they know about who represents them on city council or in the state legislature or in Congress.

The Dallas commentary writer, Joshua J. Whitfield, adds that ". . .we also see our new religion in what schedules us. No longer rhythmed by the worship of our gods or by the earth’s seasons, now our lives are paced by the quarters of our fiscal year, by our Black Fridays, for instance, and no longer our Thanksgivings. Add to this, especially among the middle classes, the religion of sports, that countless meaningless practices and games now set the schedules for innumerable families, no longer Sabbaths or Sundays or family ties. . .This is what binds us, not holy days, rituals or quaint moralities. More than any persecutions, these have displaced the old religions: these new screened, advertised, unstable rites and less any incarnate, old, fickle gods."

Now, it's also true that people of faith can let mere busy-ness fill their time as they serve on this or that synagogue committee or take charge of this or that church picnic or building project. But at least such people have some hope of running into eternal questions, divine possibilities.

The question, Whitfield insists, is about the nature of our new religion in the U.S. He wonders if it will be "a religion of charity, a religion that will either cherish or kill the poor. I wonder if it will restore or ruin the earth, if it’s a religion of equality or elites."

That's all really up to you and me. And it's crucial that we make the right choice.

(The photo here today shows the empty sanctuary of the United Methodist Church in Delavan, Ill., where my father was a member when he was a boy and where my uncle Lawrence, Dad's brother, now 97 years old, and his wife, my Aunt Velma, still attend.)

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Travel restrictions against Muslims trying to come to the U.S. have made it harder to find imams from abroad able to come and lead growing American mosques, this story reports. So a Detroit-area imam I know, Hassan Qazwini, has created a seminary to train imams, and he's not alone in this effort. In the end, this may work out better for American Muslim congregations than simply importing religious leaders who aren't as familiar as they need to be with American culture.

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KansastanP.S.: Iftekhar and Shaheen Ahmed are physicians in the Kansas City area it has been my privilege to know for quite a few years, especially through their interfaith work in which they represent Islam. I've just learned that their son, Farooq Ahmed, has published a new novel with the intriguing title of Kansastan. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but from what I've read about it, it looks like a wonderfully wild read. Farooq has several Kansas City area (plus Wichita and Manhattan) appearances and book signings scheduled. You can find those here. The first one will happen this Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, at Prospero's Books, 1800 West 39th, KC. Here is the Facebook link for that event. Here is Farooq's description of the book: "Inspired by the American Civil War, Kansastan takes place in a dystopic Kansas that is besieged by its neighboring state, Missouri. Close to the state line, an orphaned and disabled goatherd lives atop a minaret and is relegated to custodial work by the mosque's imam while the threat of occupation looms. When his aunt and cousin arrive, the mosque's congregants believe that the cousin, Faisal, is a young prophet. Faisal comes to also believe in his divinity, stoking the goatherd's envy and hatred. When the cousins fall in love with the same woman, the goatherd hatches a plan to supplant Faisal in all ways possible: as suitor and the mosque's savior. Kansastan is a singular work, infused with Islamic folklore, Quranic lyricism and Old Testament tales, as American as Cormac McCarthy, and, most importantly, viciously funny." And here is the story KCUR-FM radio did on Farooq and his new book.

Responding to a woman-hating pastor

One of the reasons many young people leave or never affiliate with a Christian church is that they are repulsed by what they consider bigotry against women and LGBTQ people, to say nothing of toleration for racist and/or anti-scientific views and sexual abuse scandals.

Beth-MooreA good recent example of bigotry against women was what the radio evangelist John MacArthur said about female Southern Baptist Bible teacher and author Beth Moore (pictured here). He said she should "go home."

As this Patheos.com blog notes, MacArthur reminded "the audience that women are never allowed to preach on a stage." Then he mocked Moore, causing the audience to laugh. "When he said he didn’t have anything to add, 'period, paragraph, end of discussion,' he added just one more jab for good measure."

The blogger, author Cara Meredith, says, "It was one of the most tasteless conversations I’ve ever heard."

Over the decades, Meredith writes, Moore has over and over again said yes -- "not to the people reading her books but to God. She responded to the call -- not to keep on teaching women, per say, but to keep on using her words for good."

The surprise here, which shouldn't be a surprise any more, is the virulence of MacArthur's misogyny. He simply can't imagine that a female could be called by God to preach or teach the gospel. When young people hear about such audacious malarkey their reaction often is not to want to have anything to do with such ignorant buffoonery. And they certainly aren't moved to respond with a desire to explore Christianity, which they now imagine is full of hard-line nonsensical rules from beginning to end.

Yes, the church must have it standards for who is called to teach and preach and who is called to be ordained to ministry. But for MacArthur to imagine that God doesn't want female voices to help people understand the Bible is to dismiss half of humanity as unworthy. I'd say no-thanks to that kind of presumptuous faith leader, too.

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A wonderfully illustrated Hebrew Bible that left Spain when Jews were expelled in 1492 is coming back to the country for an exhibition. It's a reminder not only of the persecution of Jewish people but also of the reality that Muslims, Jews and Christians once co-existed rather well in Spain.

What digging in the land of Israel has turned up: 11-4-19

A biblical archaeologist, Dr. Scott Stripling, has announced discovery, in Shiloh on the West Bank, of what could be a corner of the Ark of the Covenant.

Ark-covenantThe Jerusalem Post story to which I have linked you reports this: "The find, said Stripling, director of excavations at ancient Shiloh and head of the Associates for Biblical Research, is consistent with what he expected to find in the fields of the ancient city where, according to the biblical account, the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant once stood."

Biblical archaeology is fascinating, if sometimes overrated. Which is to say that some people are so invested in the literal stories of the Bible that they want and expect biblical archaeologists to verify every story by digging into the land of Israel to find evidence. Any contrary evidence is rejected, while shaky evidence sometimes is accepted. And sometimes archaeological fans are criticized for trying to prove that the land has always belonged to the people of Israel and that Palestinians are interlopers. Almost everything in Israel has a political aspect to it, it seems.

Still, on the whole, biblical archaeologists have found a lot of things that confirm many of the stories found in what Christians and Jews consider scripture.

As for the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Bible says the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed, it's been missing since the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., which is a heck of a long time. There has been lots of speculation about where, if anywhere, it might be. Ethiopia has been one prominent guess. And every now and then you get some story about how it may have been found there.

The team that just made the announcement about the Ark of the Covenant seems to be quite reputable. As the Post story notes, Stripling "has been excavating the land of Israel for decades. He directed excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir from 2013 to 2017, served as a field supervisor of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project from 2005 to 2010, and was a supervisor of the Jerusalem Temple Mount Salvage Project, as well.

"His Shiloh team is made up of archaeologists and volunteers from 11 universities around the world – an interdisciplinary team of scientists, historians and biblical scholars."

So this is interesting news. Better news would be the discovery that everyone in the world is doing the best job possible of living up to the demands of the Ten Commandments.

(The photo here today shows the piece found that could be part of the Ark. The picture came from the Jerusalem Post site and carried this caption and credit line: "The corner of the horned altar found at the Shiloh excavations in the West Bank [Credit: Courtesy Associates for Biblical Research])"

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This past February, in a close vote, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its stance forbidding ordination of LGBTQ people as pastors and forbidding current pastors from officiating at same-sex weddings. But that has hardly settled things. This past week the denomination's top court has been struggling with various issues related to that decision. Here's an update about all of that from Religion News Service. The denomination could have saved itself much of this trouble if it had just voted to do the right thing in the first place instead of voting to keep its repugnant bags.

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If, like me, you love to read and if, like me, you're a fan of the late C. S. Lewis, I've got excellent news for you. The publisher HarperOne has just released a new book of Lewis' thoughts about reading. It's called The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others' Eyes. It's a lovely little treasure. "Those of us who have been true readers all our life," Lewis writes in one of the short essays in the book, "seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me." And this: "Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table." And in a 1919 letter he wrote this: "If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep." Plus there's a lot more here from one of the great Christian apologists, whose death failed to receive the attention it deserved because it happened on the very day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nov. 22, 1963.

Here's love -- in just 222 pages: 11-2/3-19

One of the Kansas Citians who has poured out his generous soul in words for decades, the Rev. Robert Lee Hill, has a new collection of those words just out in book form.

All-need-love-amIt's called All You Need Is More Love: And 101 More Musings, Essays and Sundry Pieces. Buy a copy. Keep it by your easy chair or your night stand. Taste a little each day.

Bob is pastor emeritus of Community Christian Church at the edge of the Country Club Plaza and, since his retirement from that important pulpit, has been working with the Kauffman Foundation to help engage other clergy in educational issues. Well, that and other things. Bob has a tendency to stay in motion.

Wherever he is, Bob has the generative habit of noticing things, of paying attention, of being what Buddhists call "mindful."

And the writings in this welcome volume attest to that skill.

There must be a hundredyskillion definitions or descriptions of love in this book, from "the foundation of what it means to be family" to "at the core of what it means to be human" to "what compels the truest Christmas spirit."

Bob's pretty much in favor of love, though he cautions readers that he's not offering "saccharine declarations thrown out to pacify, numb or evade the tense and tough dilemmas we each and all face daily."

So he writes about pain and suffering, including his own bout with kidney stones. And he describes a church mission trip to smashed up and half-drowned New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And tells of the murders of nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist. And about politics and war and winter.

And he seeks to see all of this and more through the lens of love.

Bob asked me to read the manuscript before publication so I could, if I were inclined, write an endorsement of the book for the back cover. I did, and you'll find it there.

But now that I have the final version in print, I want to encourage you to give copies away to others, inviting them sip a little bit each day. In a little over 100 days they'll have absorbed ideas about love that may change their lives. Trust me. It's worth the risk of a small investment.

(By the way, Bob will be introducing his new book and autographing copies at an event at The Well in Waldo starting at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, and at Community Christian Church after the 10:30 a.m. worship service on Sunday, Nov. 24.)

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Christian leaders from various branches of the faith are urging Americans to act with civility in politics as the nation moves toward the next presidential a year from now. This will require a major reclamation project. Civility, after all, left town when the internet became sheriff.

Maybe God said, 'Let there be dark': 11-1-19

The mysteries of the physical universe are so deep and puzzling that sometimes it feels as if the Creator purposefully sought to baffle us as a way to increase our awe and wonder.

Clouds33Scientists have made stunning discoveries in the last 100 years but it still feels as though they are the proverbial sightless people trying to describe the elephant after touching just one part of it.

Take, for instance, dark matter. Well, I'm not sure how you "take" it because, in fact, you can't see it. But that isn't stopping scientists from trying to uncover its many mysteries.

Just the other day, for instance, as this press release reports, "The international ALPS II ('Any light particle search') collaboration installed the first of 24 superconducting magnets today (Oct. 28), marking the start of the installation of a unique particle physics experiment to look for dark matter."

What is dark matter? Here's the explanation from the release:

"Dark matter is one of the greatest mysteries in physics. Observations and calculations of the motion of stars in galaxies, for example, show that there must be more matter in the universe than we can account for with matter particles known today. In fact, dark matter must make up 85% of all the matter in the universe. However, currently we don’t know what it is. But we know that it does not interact with regular matter and is essentially invisible, so that it is called 'dark.'”

The theological conundrums around this are intriguing. So the God who said, "Let there be light," apparently added, "but only enough to be able to see 15 percent of what I'm making." Which means that what this God really said was closer to "Let there be dark."

But, of course, that is what you get when you take certain biblical accounts literally.

I wish the scientists working on this have success -- but not too much. I prefer a cosmos with at least some mystery left in it. It's good for our sense of humility, and that's a sense that humankind seems on the edge of exhausting completely at the moment.

(The photo here today is one I took from an airplane.)

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Here's a good read from a pastor who thinks institutional Christianity is dying and we need to find something better to replace it: "Rather than working to treat the ills that are causing our demise, we might try stemming the cause by asking what good is needed in the world and then find the way to do it," she writes. Good idea.

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P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, is visiting family in California and he got to experience some trick-or-treating last night. I thought you'd be interested in his take on his American experience. He e-mailed me this: "Americans have devised a system of extortion on a day called Halloween in which children from your neighborhood come to your house and shout 'Trick or treat,' which means 'Either you give me a treat (of candies, ice cream or something else') or I will do some mischief to you.' No wonder the Mafia has sprouted in America. It is excellent childhood training!" Did he get that mostly right?

Can the pope's progressive instincts prevail? 10-31-19

The recently concluded Vatican bishops' conference on the Amazon provides an opportunity to reassess the papacy of Francis (pictured here). This Atlantic analysis does quite a good job of exactly that task:

Pope-Francis"The path Francis has been taking," the piece says, ". . .leads directly into a larger culture war, one that pits progressives against traditionalists."

Those labels, of course, hide as much as they reveal, but at times they're handy as long as we remember that Catholics don't easily divide into that binary system.

The pope's critics, the article notes, say Francis is "watering down Church doctrine. These critics tend to be defenders of (the former pope) Benedict, a brainy disciplinarian who advocated a smaller, more doctrinally pure Church, rather than a more flexible and inclusive one."

The Atlantic piece adds this: "In the culture war between traditionalists and progressives over the future of the Church, the pope may be on the progressive, inclusive side, but his traditionalist critics have access to social media, which has an outsize influence in shaping perceptions. . .

"In short, the Catholic Church on Twitter may not be the same as the Catholic Church writ large. Francis seems confident that he has the latter on his side, but will his efforts — on married priests, on environmentalism — spread beyond the Amazon?"

The church -- indeed, any institutional religion -- always struggles internally to stay true to what it perceives its core mission to be while seeking to attract people who may not understand that mission but have other needs. Pope Francis, who sits at the center of the institution, tends to look outward beyond the walls of the church to the wounded world he believes the church is called to serve. Some of his harshest critics sit near that same center but look inward in an effort to preserve what they have understood is the church's divine mandate.

In The Atlantic piece, one of those critics says this: “Is there anyone left who is actually worried about saving souls? But isn’t that why Christ died on the cross?”

Those are two heavily loaded theological questions that people of good will can debate and about which they can come to different conclusions. But if the church is dedicated simply to "saving souls," it raises the questions "from what?" and "for what?" Those questions should open up a conversation that takes seriously the needs of people (and the planet) outside the walls of the church. If that conversation doesn't happen -- and it's one Pope Francis regularly encourages -- then the church will turn inward and ignore its mandate to love this broken world and to work to repair it.

The questions quoted about saving souls and why Christ died reflect a limited theology that Francis is working to expand beyond one singular view of doctrine. I'm not a member of the Catholic Church, but I'm rooting for him in this work -- and have been since even before I co-authored the 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

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Baha’is around the world are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, known to as the Báb, revered as the prophet who founded the Baha'i movement. In this RNS column, Anthony Vance, director of the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., tells why the Báb continues to inspire people around the world.

What the post-Baghdadi world must do: 10-30-19


What we now believe to have been the forced suicide of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an important blow to the top of an evil organization. But it is far from the end of ISIS and far from the end of fanatical thinking that attracts followers who seem vulnerable to monochromatic dogma because they haven't figured out the need for metaphor, myth, allegory and mystery.

As this USA Today opinion piece suggests, "the Islamic State’s corrosive ideological message remains as enduring, and as appealing, as ever. Counterterrorism experts and officials caution that there has been no discernible change to patterns of recruitment and radicalization in the broader Muslim world over the past year. They also note that the organization’s outreach — carried out through a sophisticated apparatus that adroitly exploits social media, online propaganda and new technology — means that it remains a formidable force in the most important arena of all: the struggle for 'hearts and minds' taking place in the Muslim World."

I reported from Saudi Arabia back in 2002 that Islam was in a battle for its soul. It still is. Those of us outside Islam cannot win that battle for traditional Muslims who want to retain the best of their religion. That will be up to them. But we can encourage the traditionalists and we can do what we can to disrupt and scatter the violent extremists who offer nothing to the world but death and destruction.

The USA Today piece makes this good argument: "In the wake of the ISIS emir’s death, the impulse for the Trump administration to consider its counterterrorism mission accomplished is sure to be stronger than ever.

"That, however, would be a dangerous misreading of the resilience of the group that al-Baghdadi once commanded — and whose ideological message continues to both mobilize and inspire."

What we need, clearly, are models for how to help young and vulnerable minds recognize that the path of ISIS or al-Qaida or, indeed, any fanatical approach, is unworthy of them and won't lead to a flourishing life. They must see that even when they are appalled by the actions of such major players on the world stage as the U.S., there are reasonable and peaceful ways to work toward resolution and change -- ways that don't degenerate into useless violence.

(The photo above of the destroyed building where al-Baghdadi was living in northwest Syria came from this Time Magazine site.)

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What was it that bothered me most about the unseemly way in which President Trump gloated over the death of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin pretty well nails it in this RNS blog: It would have been good had Trump responded in harmony with what Salkin calls "a classic rabbinic legend" that says "that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and the Egyptian soldiers drowned, the angels broke out in song. God rebuked them: 'The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you are filled with song!?!'”

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P.S.: I've made a change in the format of the blog to help make it easier for readers who view it on their mobile devices. Let me know if you like it. But please understand that the best way to read this blog is on your desktop or laptop or iPad. If you view it just on your phone, you see the left two columns and not the right column. The right column contains lots of related information plus links to the archives and more.

The Wicca-witchcraft connection for Halloween: 10-29-19

Perhaps the upcoming Halloween holiday is an appropriate time to explore a bit about witches and what now is called the Wiccan religion.

WiccaAfter all, as this Seattle Times article reports, "Halloween originated as a holiday held sacred by people who sometimes refer to themselves, unapologetically, as witches."

The story quotes Robert Anderson, who runs what the paper calls "the premier pagan supplies shop and bookstore in Seattle," this way: "“Wicca is kind of a mix of western magic and neopaganism. Wicca is a modern religion in a lot of ways. And it came about in the mid-20th century with a whole bunch of ideas whose time had come. Ideas about nature being sacred. Ideas about wanting to empower women. And they drew on a lot of ancient things, but they put them together in a whole new way. And they left out a lot of things from the ancient world that we would never be OK with.”

And it describes Samhain (pronounced sow-ain) as "the original Halloween, a modern(ish) version of an ancient Gaelic end-of-harvest festival. Co-opted by the Catholic Church as 'All Hallows’ Day' or 'All Saints’ Day,' Samhain lands midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, celebrated on the evening of Oct. 31 and into Nov. 1."

I like to let people who practice a particular religion have a chance to describe it themselves and not rely entirely on descriptions from outsiders, even scholars who study religion (and who sometimes don't get it all quite right). So here is a description from the website Wicca.com.

As the site reports, "Wicca is a recognized religion, while Witchcraft itself is not considered a religion.  Thus, Wicca might best be described as a modern religion, based on ancient Witchcraft traditions."

Similarly, the website Wiccaliving.com says this: "Wicca is a modern, Earth-centered religion with roots in the ancient practices of our shamanic ancestors. Its practitioners, who call themselves Wiccans, honor the life-giving and life-sustaining powers of Nature through ritual worship and a commitment to living in balance with the Earth. Wicca is technically classified as a Pagan religion, though not all Wiccans would identify as Pagans — and plenty who identify as Pagans are not Wiccans."

And, to complicate your thinking further, here is a Patheos.com blog post that tries to describe Wicca.

You can kind of see how the Wicca-witchcraft connection has led to some kids dressing up as witches for Halloween, but if some come to our door this year I think I'm going to ask them to explain how they might be part of the religion of Wicca. If they don't know, I'll give them a link to this blog post. Feel free to do the same.

By the way, do you know why most witches have been women? The college English teacher who wrote this piece says it's because so-called witch hunts always went after the people with the least power.

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If you're looking for a reason to open an old family Bible, this story from Toledo, Ohio, might give you that incentive. And the Bible doesn't even have to belong to your own family.

Catholics consider female deacons, married priests: 10-28-19

Potentially major changes are astir in the Catholic Church.

2017-02-27 20.20.39It may not seem like a huge deal to allow women to be deacons or to allow married priests in some areas of the countries of the Amazon, but both of those possible changes came out of the just-concluded bishops' conference on the Amazon, and they have the possibility of remaking the church in significant ways.

Neither change is yet a done deal. And as we all know, religious institutions move at agonizingly slow speeds at times. So even if these changes pass the remaining hurdles, it will be awhile before they are put in place formally.

The National Catholic Reporter article to which I linked you above said that "after the 185 male prelates at the monthlong Synod of Bishops said in their final document that the idea of ordaining women as deacons had been 'very present' during their discussions, (Pope) Francis announced he will be summoning his commission on the issue back to work, and adding new members to its ranks. 

"'I am going to take up the challenge. . .that you have put forward, that women be heard,' the pontiff said in spontaneous remarks after close of the synod's business Oct. 26."

The conference produced a final 120-paragraph document, NCR reported, and the paragraph calling on Francis to consider priestly ordination of married men received 128 yes votes and 41 no votes. Approval of any particular paragraph required 120 yes votes.

As the NCR report makes clear, the bishops also spent a lot of time talking about the need to rescue the planet from environmental degradation.

But for how the final document may change the institutional church, the recommendations about female deacons and married priests are the most important.

Most other branches of Christianity allow members of the clergy to be married, and many such persons say it has both pluses and minuses. A major plus is that it helps pastors understand marital and family issues in a deeper way and, thus, better equips them to offer pastoral care to marriages and to families in crisis. At the same time, having the responsibility of being a spouse and, often, a parent, means that a pastor simply cannot devote full attention to the needs of the church.

It's also true that many other branches of Christianity allow the ordination of women, not just as deacons but also as pastors. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, began ordaining women as pastors in 1956, and the Episcopal Church began to allow for such ordinations two decades later.

It's been my experience that having female pastors has been extraordinarily beneficial for the church in almost limitless ways, including having a feminine voice and perspective available at the center of church power. Many argue -- including me -- that the Catholic Church might have avoided at least some of the scandal of priests sexually abusing children had women had a larger and more authoritative voice in the church.

Whether the idea of allowing women to be Catholic deacons will reasonably quickly lead to female priests remains highly doubtful. But female deacons might help to soften the opposition to female priests. We'll see. It seems to me that it's much more likely that allowing some priests to be married will more lead to allowing all priests to be married who want to be more quickly than having women deacons will lead to women priests.

(The photo here today shows the sanctuary of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City.)

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It seems odd to cheer the death of anyone, but it felt perfectly understandable when Osama bin Laden met his end and, yesterday, when  Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi apparently met his end at the hands of U.S. special forces. Al-Baghdadi has been the source of fermented and demented fanaticism and he needed to be stopped. But this surely is not the end of ISIS and it's certainly not the end of terrorism rooted in distorted religion. As reassuring as his death might have been, the reality is that there is always a successor and then a successor to the successor. The only way to stop this evil is by somehow helping people see that a better future for all can be obtained not through war, terrorism and monochromatic religious thinking but through peace brought about by justice and through a willingness to listen to all voices.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a KC-area Muslim-Jewish partnership -- now is online here.

Is the Vatican going broke? 11-26/27-19

What has the worldwide sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church cost the Vatican? A lot, of course, in reputation, in trust, in credibility, in moral leadership.

Vatican-moneyBut it also turns out that it has cost it enormously in financial support, if a new book is to be believed. As this piece in the British newspaper The Telegraph reports, "Worldwide donations to the Catholic Church have plunged in the wake of sex abuse scandals that have eroded faith in the Vatican, a new book claims.

"The Church’s finances are in such a dire state – a result of a toxic mix of incompetence, internal wrangling and corruption – that the Vatican risks a default by 2023, according to the expose."

The book is called Universal Judgment, and is by Italian investigative journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi.

The Vatican quickly denied there was any immediate financial threat:

"There is no threat of collapse or default here. There is only the need for a spending review. And that is what we're doing. I can prove it to you with numbers,” Bishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Vatican’s sovereign asset management body, said.

And precisely because this scandal has cost the Vatican some of its credibility, such denials are likely to seem like what we used to see in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s -- non-denial denials.

No doubt it's too soon to be able to say with any certainty whether the thrust of the new book is right or the Vatican's denial is right. But even local anecdotal evidence suggests that some Catholics have become so fed up with the way the institution has handled the sex scandal that they have reduced or eliminated their contributions to their church -- and some, including my friend Melinda Henneberger, have left the church altogether.

Other religious bodies, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which my own congregation belongs, have seen reductions in financial support over recent decades, too. But that has been more associated with the broad decline in Protestant membership in the U.S. and not with any particular sexual or other scandal.

At least so far no one has suggested that one solution for dwindling financial support among Catholics would be for the church to start selling indulgences again, an issue at the heart of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

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On the first anniversary of the horrific murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, my friend Tony Norman, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnists, has written this terrific column about what happened there. Read it and weep.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a KC-area Muslim-Jewish partnership -- now is online here.