Friday, 30 May 2014

Men and women: towards unity in diversity

Chagall adam and eve

[Warning: Long read.]

My personal experience of having many good friends among both men and women is leading me to believe that differences between the two genders are real, but that their nature is very complex and that any attempt to characterize one versus the other ends up in traits that span some of both genders’ populations. No matter what profile is devised with the intention to characterize what a man’s trademark traits are, there will be women I know who excel at some of them, and, equally, I can think of men who excel at traits that would be attributed to the archetypal woman.

Claims that women are more intuitive while men are more rational have always struck me as simplistic and reductive in terms of their predictive capacity in the face of meeting a new person of either gender, and - more importantly, I have found them to be unhelpful, or even obstructive, when it comes to building relationships. Yet, the view of resolving the question about the differences between men and women by means of two list of ‘typical’ traits is very popular, as can also be seen from best-sellers like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” (the first book I read that compelled me to write a review on Amazon :).

To counter this trend, I would like to sketch out my understanding of how men and women compare, and do so from two perspectives: the first one being science (both neuroscience and psychology) and the second one religion (specifically Christianity, and even more specifically Catholic exegesis, the Theology of the Body of St. John Paul II and the intellectual visions of the Servant of God, Chiara Lubich).

From the perspective of science, there is a growing body of work on quantifying both the neurological/physiological and psychological differences between men and women, where certain physical as well as behavioral differences have been measured repeatedly and for which evidence is mounting.

On the neurological and physiological side, there is strong evidence (obtained by a team from Oxford and Cambridge, who pooled together 126 studies, involving 43 000 subjects) to show that the brains of men are between 8% and 13% larger in volume than those of women. There is also evidence for there being significant differences between the relative volumes and densities of different regions in the brain between men and women. A recent example here is the work of Nopoulos et al. from the University of Iowa, who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the ventral prefrontal cortex (VPC), a region involved in social cognition and interpersonal judgment. The findings, based on 30 men and 30 women, showed a relatively larger volume of this region in women, by 10%. In other words, relative to the total volume of a brain, the VPC region is 10% larger in women. Finally, there are not only volumetric differences between the brains of men and women, but also morphological ones. Here the most well-known, recent study is by Ingalhalikar et al., where the brains of 949 subjects (428 male and 521 female) were studied in terms of the nature of neural connections (connectome maps) between and within brain hemispheres (using diffusion tensor imaging). The results showed a systematic difference where male brains displayed a greater degree of intra-hemispherical synaptic connections (see top of following figure), while female brains had more prevalent inter-hemispherical links (see bottom of following figure). Interestingly, the authors of this study refer to the differences between the connectome maps of males and females as being a “complementarity” that makes them particularly suitable for collaboration ...

Penn medicine

While there is strong evidence for systematic physiological differences between male and female brains, the question of what their consequences are remains far less clearly understood. E.g., taking the question of intelligence, there are studies whose results support all three of the possible outcomes: that there is no statistically significant difference, that men are more intelligent, or that women are more intelligent on average (e.g., see pp. 72 of the following paper). Even in the cases where a difference is shown, it tends to be small: 2-4 points in terms of the well known IQ test, and whether it is men or women who come out ahead depends on the specific test used. E.g., in a study involving 6780 subjects from Brazil, women came out ahead by 2 IQ points using Cambraia’s Attention Test, while men did better in Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices test - by 1.8 IQ points. Similarly the behavioral consequences, from the perspective of differences between the sexes, of the VPC differences measured by Nopoulos et al., present a complex picture. There, no significant differences were found between men and women in terms of performing the Interpersonal Perception Task, which tests a subject’s ability to understand different types of social interaction. However, when the subjects were asked to complete a Personal Attributes Questionnaire (answering questions that lead to the subject’s self-perception in terms of two scales: “instrumentality” and “expressivity”, which are commonly taken to stand for masculinity and femininity and are used as a measure of gender identity), the resulting scores displayed strong correlation with the Interpersonal Perception Task outcomes.

The point of the above examples taken from recent findings in neuroscience and psychology, from studies that explore the differences between men and women, is to illustrate the complexity of the results obtained to date. On the one hand there is strong evidence for biological differences between male and female subjects, while on the other hand the specific nature of the differences and their impact on psychological traits or inclinations is complex and does not neatly divide along lines of a subject’s sex. While nature differs on average, an individual’s characteristics make them different from their sex’s average, with nurture and society further contributing to there being a continuum of states instead of a binary categorization of abilities, preferences, or traits. In my opinion, the psychology of personality, as opposed to that of gender, is a better means for understanding how one individual may differ from another in terms of their preferences and inclinations, which in turn can facilitate building mutually-fulfilling relationships.1

Turning to how the differences between men and women are understood in the context of Christianity, I would like to highlight three perspectives, as already mentioned at the beginning of this post.

First, there is St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, as set out in his “Men and Women He Created Them,” which I have already written about at length here. The only insight I’d like to point to here is John Paul II’s insistence on men and women being created “in the image of God” intrinsically referring to the communion of Persons in the Trinity. He makes this clear by saying that “man2 became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.” And it is in this context that the differences between men and women have a specific purpose, which is that these “two reciprocally completing ways of “being a body” [… are] complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination.” This in turn leads John Paul II to saying that a person’s “sex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of man’s solitude [… and] always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.” Men and women are different and complementary, but in profound, existential ways rather than as reducible to a trivial set of typical features or traits.

Second, the New Testament is rich in portraying different roles played by men versus women in the context of Jesus’ mission on Earth. Here Damiano Marzotto’s “Pietro e Maddalena” (mentioned by Pope Francis as being on his reading list), does a superb job of analyzing what these roles are in the Gospels, as a first step towards understanding how women could play the prominent role that they need to have in the Church, which they lack today. Marzotto summarizes his findings by first pointing out a greater propensity in women for welcoming Jesus’ teaching and making themselves available for a deepening and contemplation of his message (with men then acting on what the women understood). Mary’s keeping the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and “reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) illustrates this very clearly. This places women in a position of welcoming novelty, of taking risks and of stepping out of line - traits not commonly associated with women in first century Palestine. The women of the Gospel, while having some common features, very much break the mold of societal stereotypes - another argument against characterizing men and women by sets of static, opposed features. The second aspect that Marzotto identifies in the women of the Gospel is an ability to anticipate Jesus’ actions and to provoke him or the apostles to action. Mary’s intervention at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), or Mary Magdalene going to the apostles after meeting the risen Christ (John 20:1-3) are good examples here. Finally, Marzotto also argues that women have been responsible for a broadening of Jesus’ mission, for a greater universality of who it is addressed to. Here the woman suffering from hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34), the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42), the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), or the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) are great examples.

Third, the Servant of God, Chiara Lubich, in her intellectual visions (like those of Sts. Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius) during the summer of 1949 (referred to as the Paradise ’49), prefigures St. John Paul II’s interpreting the relationship between men and women from the perspective of the Trinity. As Giuseppe Maria Zanghí puts it, “this means that a meeting between the two “differences” requires, in each one of the two, a fullness of being: their synthesis is possible [...] because, already before the two meet, each one of them is complete in themselves. Every form of weakness, every temptation of “subjection”, is overcome. [...] True unity between man and woman can be achieved if each of the two realities is fulfilled in itself.” During her visions in 1949, Lubich recounts the following insight:
“The perfect man has the woman in him: he contains in his strength all of feminine sweetness, in his directness all of a woman’s suppleness. His character is unitarian, closed and severe like unity. But, if he is perfect (unitarian), he contains in himself the Trinity, who is a woman that is all open, caressing, loving. So the woman too, if she is perfect, encloses her open character in self-restraint that is reminiscent of the Madonna. She is man. Trinity in Unity.” (Paradise ’49, 1319-1320)3
The relationship between men and women, as understood also by Lubich in her mystical vision, is one of unity in distinction and distinction in unity, which is love. To reduce it only to distinction, and to a simplistic binary one at that, is to deny the Trinitarian image in which both men and women were made, and it is also to distort the complex and deeply beautiful picture that science is in the process of understanding as we speak.

[UPDATE on 17 November 2014:] Today Pope Francis opened a symposium on precisely the subject of how men and women relate, entitled “The Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage,” during which he had the following to say about the nature of differences between the sexes:
“Christians find [the] deepest meaning [of complementarity] in the first Letter to the Corinthians where Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that-just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole-everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each. (cf. 1 Cor. 12). To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. [...]

When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma.”

1 But, we’ll have to leave that for another time ...
2 “Man” here meaning the human person (as is clear from the context of the original text).
3 Apologies for the crude translation, the Italian original can be found in Zanghí's “Leggendo un carisma” on pp. 149-150.

Francis in Jerusalem: brothers in mercy

Francis rabi imam

[Long read.]

Last weekend saw Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, during which he delivered 15 scheduled speeches and made several spontaneous stops that have been in the headlines all over the world. Here I don’t mean to re-tell his whirlwind visit, since that has already been done very well elsewhere, but just to pick out some of my favorite moments from the homilies and addresses he delivered during that 3-day period (in chronological order).

First, there was his homily during a mass in Amman on 24th May (note the focus on diversity in unity, which is one of the key themes of the whole trip):
“The mission of the Holy Spirit, in fact, is to beget harmony – he is himself harmony – and to create peace in different situations and between different people. Diversity of ideas and persons should not trigger rejection or prove an obstacle, for variety always enriches. So today, with fervent hearts, we invoke the Holy Spirit and ask him to prepare the path to peace and unity.”
Second, he addressed refugees and disabled young people in Bethany (note the use of humility as a means of closeness to Jesus and his damning words addressed to the arms trade):
“Coming here to the Jordan to be baptized by John, Jesus showed his humility and his participation in our human condition. He stooped down to us and by his love he restored our dignity and brought us salvation. Jesus’ humility never fails to move us, the fact that he bends down to wounded humanity in order to heal us: he bends down to heal all our wounds! [...]

[A]s we observe this tragic conflict, seeing these wounds, seeing so many people who have left their homeland, forced to do so, I ask myself: who is selling arms to these people to make war? Behold the root of evil! Hatred and financial greed in the manufacturing and sale of arms. This should make us think about who is responsible for this situation, for providing arms to those in conflict and thereby sustaining such conflict. Let us think about this and with sincere hearts let us call upon these poor criminals to change their ways.”
The next day (25th May), Pope Francis then addressed President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian authorities, where he concluded his speech as follows (note the reference to God’s almightiness, which is very prominent in Islam, the reference to brotherhood, and the Arabic greeting at the end):
“Mr President, dear brothers and sisters gathered here in Bethlehem: may Almighty God bless you, protect you and grant you the wisdom and strength needed to continue courageously along the path to peace, so that swords will be turned into ploughshares and this land will once more flourish in prosperity and concord. Salaam!”
Later the same day, Francis then delivered a homily in Manger Square, Bethlehem, from which I’d like to quote more extensively, since it provides a great insight about the importance he gives children:
“The Child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the sign given by God to those who awaited salvation, and he remains forever the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in our world. The angel announces to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child...”. [...]

The Child of Bethlehem is frail, like all newborn children. He cannot speak and yet he is the Word made flesh who came to transform the hearts and lives of all men and women. This Child, like every other child, is vulnerable; he needs to be accepted and protected. Today too, children need to be welcomed and defended, from the moment of their conception.

Sadly, in this world, with all its highly developed technology, great numbers of children continue to live in inhuman situations, on the fringes of society, in the peripheries of great cities and in the countryside. All too many children continue to be exploited, maltreated, enslaved, prey to violence and illicit trafficking. Still too many children live in exile, as refugees, at times lost at sea, particularly in the waters of the Mediterranean. Today, in acknowledging this, we feel shame before God, before God who became a child.

And we have to ask ourselves: Who are we, as we stand before the Child Jesus? Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children? Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and care for him with the love of a father and a mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to elim- inate him? Are we like the shepherds, who went in haste to kneel before him in worship and offer him their humble gifts? Or are we indifferent? Are we perhaps people who use fine and pious words, yet exploit pictures of poor children in order to make money? Are we ready to be there for children, to “waste time” with them? Are we ready to listen to them, to care for them, to pray for them and with them? Or do we ignore them because we are too caught up in our own affairs?”
In the same location, Francis then issued an invitation to prayer for peace (which was very quickly accepted by both parties - within a matter of hours):
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.

All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers. All of us – especial- ly those placed at the service of their respective peoples – have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers.”

Francis bartholomew slab

From the perspective of ecumenism, the most important speech was then the one Pope Francis delivered at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in the presence of Patriarch Bartholomew (note its supporting pillars being mercy, forgiveness, joy and unity, and the fractal nature of ecumenism - from the visible union among Christian churches to the ecumenism of everyday acts of closeness):
“Let us receive the special grace of this moment. We pause in reverent silence before this empty tomb in order to rediscover the grandeur of our Christian vocation: we are men and women of resurrection, and not of death. From this place we learn how to live our lives, the trials of our Churches and of the whole world, in the light of Easter morning. Every injury, every one of our pains and sorrows, has been borne on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd who offered himself in sacrifice and thereby opened the way to eternal life. His open wounds are like the cleft through which the torrent of his mercy is poured out upon the world. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope, which is this: Christòs anesti! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place, in the words of the One who, risen from the dead, calls all of us “my brothers” (cf. Mt 28:10; Jn 20:17). [...]

We know that much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire; yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. This will be a grace of resurrection, of which we can have a foretaste even today. Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection! Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen! Every time we reflect on the future of the Church in the light of her vocation to unity, the dawn of Easter breaks forth!”
On the final day (26th May), Pope Francis addressed the Gran Mufti of Jerusalem, where he concluded with a call to brotherhood:
“Dear brothers, dear friends, from this holy place I make a heartfelt plea to all people and to all communities who look to Abraham: may we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters! May we learn to understand the sufferings of others! May no one abuse the name of God through violence! May we work together for justice and peace! Salaam!”
Then, Francis changed his plans and instead of having lunch at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, he turned up at a Franciscan friary instead, insisting that nothing be changed in either the refectory customs or the day’s menu.

Francis holocaust survivor hand

For me the most important moment of the trip was Francis’ visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial, from where I’d like to quote almost his entire address, without commentary:
““Adam, where are you?” (cf. Gen 3:9). Where are you, o man? What have you come to? In this place, this memorial of the Shoah, we hear God’s question echo once more: “Adam, where are you?” This question is charged with all the sorrow of a Father who has lost his child. The Father knew the risk of freedom; he knew that his children could be lost... yet perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss! Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, That cry – “Where are you?” – echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss...

Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you. Who are you, o man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths?

Certainly it is not the dust of the earth from which you were made. The dust of the earth is some- thing good, the work of my hands. Certainly it is not the breath of life which I breathed into you. That breath comes from me, and it is something good (cf. Gen 2:7).

No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart... Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.

Today, in this place, we hear once more the voice of God: “Adam, where are you?”

From the ground there rises up a soft cry: “Have mercy on us, O Lord!” To you, O Lord our God, be- longs righteousness; but to us confusion of face and shame (cf. Bar 1:15).

A great evil has befallen us, such as never happened under the heavens (cf. Bar 2:2). Now, Lord, hear our prayer, hear our plea, save us in your mercy. Save us from this horror.”
Finally, Francis also celebrated mass at the Upper Room, where he spoke about what its meaning is for us (note the emphasis on friendship, service and family - both the importance of families in the Church, and the Church being a family):
“The Upper Room speaks to us of service, of Jesus giving the disciples an example by washing their feet. Washing one another’s feet signifies welcoming, accepting, loving and serving one another. It means serving the poor, the sick and the outcast, those whom I find difficult, those who annoy me. [...]

The Upper Room also reminds us of friendship. “No longer do I call you servants – Jesus said to the Twelve – but I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). The Lord makes us his friends, he reveals God’s will to us and he gives us his very self. This is the most beautiful part of being a Christian and, especially, of being a priest: becoming a friend of the Lord Jesus, and discovering in our hearts that he is our friend. [...]

[T]he Upper Room reminds us of the birth of the new family, the Church, our holy Mother the hierarchical Church established by the risen Jesus; a family that has a Mother, the Virgin Mary. Christian families belong to this great family, and in it they find the light and strength to press on and be renewed, amid the challenges and difficulties of life. All God’s children, of every people and language, are invited and called to be part of this great family, as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the one Father in heaven.”

Friday, 9 May 2014

Differing currents of thought: fact or fiction?


[Warning: Long read.]

One of my favorite passages in Evangelii Gaudium - Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, and de facto blueprint for the future of the Church - regards diversity of theological thought, where he says:
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.” (§40)
With the above model in mind, let me take you through the latest moves in a “cognitive reconciliation” process that has been underway for many years now and that I have commented on before: the dispute between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). As you can see from the previous post, my take on the situation was in agreement with the CDF, especially after reading the LCWR’s “Systems Thinking Handbook” (where only the last of these three terms seemed to apply). In fact, I came away thinking that the CDF were being quite soft on the LCWR, whose Handbook could clearly be seen not to be Catholic, even by a non-theologian. As such, I felt that the CDF were doing their job both with precision and with prudence, which is no mean feat.

Last week then saw the next round of talks between the two parties, which Cardinal Müller kicked off with talk that reiterated the previous assessment’s validity and that lamented the limited cooperation of the LCWR over the last months. There, Müller, whose fan I have been for a long time, focused on criticizing the LCWR’s “focalizing of attention [...] around the concept of Conscious Evolution,” as expounded by Barbara Marx Hubbard, even leading to “some religious Institutes modify[ing] their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.” Müller then spoke very directly about what the CDF (which he heads) thought of Conscious Evolution:
“Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.”
And, again I have to say that I am 100% with Müller and that the above statement is an expression of tact and restraint that I personally would find hard to maintain. Marx Hubbard’s “Conscious Evolution” is muddled, buzzword-addled gibberish that at best aspires to pseudo-philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity and in no sane context would it even be considered a “current of thought in philosophy, theology [or] pastoral practice.” To borrow another Marx’s linguistic device, I’d say that Conscious Evolution is to thought what military justice is to justice. It’s as if the LCWR took a shampoo ad (with its micro-ceramides and nanosphere complexes) as the starting point for a new theory of cosmogeny. If, after reviewing the Conscious Evolution website, you arrive at a different conclusion, please, proceed to ordering the official “EvolvePac” - the “Evolutionary Tool-Kit to-go” (and it is unlikely that I’ll ever see you here again).

So far, so good. “But,” you might ask, “what does this have to do with Evangelii Gaudium?” And you’d be right to question my train of though here, since the above is just an instance of a speck of dust being flicked off the Church’s shoulder. There is no question of a diversity of thought having to be “reconciled by the Spirit.”

Let’s therefore turn to another part of Cardinal Müller’s talk, where he criticizes the LWCR for their non-compliance with the CDF’s order that “speakers and presenters at major programs [are to] be subject to approval by the [the CDF’s] Delegate,” Archbishop Peter Sartain. Müller then proceeds to reiterate why this provision has been put into place, and to give an example:
“This provision has been portrayed as heavy-handed interference in the day-to-day activities of the Conference. For its part, the Holy See would not understand this as a “sanction,” but rather as a point of dialogue and discernment. [...]

An example may help at this point. It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year’s Assembly to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings. This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well.”
What piqued my interest here is that the theologian in question is not named and furthermore that no comment is made by Müller on what it is about their writings that’s amiss (cf. the very clear and direct criticism and naming of Marx Hubbard). Also, a careful reading of his words shows that the objection here is firstly to the process having ignored a provision put in place by the CDF (who does have legal authority over the LCWR) and secondly to the lack of unity with the local Church in the USA.

I was curious though to understand what doctrinal errors the US bishops have found and who the theologian was, so, I dug a bit deeper.

It turns out that the theologian is Dr. Elizabeth Johnson - a Distinguished Professor of Theology at the Jesuit Fordham University in New York City and that the bone of contention with the USCCB is her book “Quest for the Living God.” Having read the USCCB’s assessment of her book made me even more curious, since it sounded to me like its central point was the incompleteness of Johnson’s book (i.e., a focusing only on some aspects, like the economy of the Trinity and not its immanence, or an overemphasis of others, like that of apophasis to the point of denying analogy in the context of our capacity to know anything about God) and that “the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God.”

The next step was obvious - to get a copy of Johnson’s book and see for myself. Here I have to say that I can very clearly identify the basis of the USCCB’s criticism - looking at the cited passages and reading around them provides a picture that is fairly represented in the USCCB’s assessment and, unlike Johnson in her response to the assessment, I don’t believe there has been any misunderstanding.

However, I’d like to argue that Johnson’s case is categorically different from the new-age self-help of the LCWR Handbook or the pseudo-philosophy of Marx Hubbard’s “Conscious Evolution.” Johnson is no charlatan - far from it! Reading her book gives a clear sense both of a sharp and erudite mind and of a person intent on seeking to encounter and understand God (a point also underlined by the USCCB being at pains to emphasize that theirs is “no judgment of the personal intention of the author”). Her writing is full of statements like “theology today [...] seeks understanding of God at once contemporaneous with culture and resistant to its wrongs,” or that “[i]nsight develops [...] from heart to head to hands,” and that:
“Signifying the Creator, Savior, and Lover of all the world, the whole cosmos as well as all human beings, the phrase “the living God” elicits a sense of ineffable divine mystery on the move in history, calling forth our own efforts in partnership while nourishing a loving relationship at the center of our being: “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2).”
I have to say that the above could well have come from Pope Francis, Cardinal Ravasi or even Cardinal Müller. Hers is very much Christian and (part of) Catholic thought and clearly a candidate for the kind of process proposed in Evangelii Gaudium. While I agree with the USCCB’s assessment that her writing is misleading (by being incomplete and aimed at a broad audience), I do also think that it is rich in insight and that the response should have been to initiate dialogue, which, sadly has not taken place - also to Prof. Johnson’s disappointment. I believe that it would be well possible for Johnson to extend what she has written in a way that would not change her position, while making its relationship with the Church’s teaching explicit rather than ambiguous to a theologically untrained reader.

To conclude, let me just refer to Cardinal Kasper, who has been asked about this case during his visit to the US this week and who has been quoted as saying: “Sometimes the CDF views things a bit narrowly. Aquinas was condemned by his bishop. So Johnson is in good company.” I believe it is the CDF’s job to view things narrowly, but also that it is the whole Church’s job to be broad and to facilitate exactly the kind of “differing currents of thought” that Pope Francis speaks about in Evangelii Gaudium.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Ethiopian eunuch: a case study in mercy

Ethiopian eunuch

Today’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles (8:26-40), tells the story of St. Philip’s journey from Jerusalem to Gaza, during which he meets the chief treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, who is a eunuch (i.e., man castrated to become a more trustworthy and disinterested servant). The eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah and, upon being asked by Philip whether he understands what he reads, Philip is invited to join the eunuch in his chariot to explain it to him. The passage in question was:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

In (his) humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.”
(cf Isaiah 53:7-8)
Philip told the eunuch that the passage was about Jesus and proceeded to tell him more. When they came to some water, the eunuch said: “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). And Philip baptized him.

You might think: “so what?,” but the above is actually quite an important passage given what is going on in the Church today, since, I believe, it gives an example of what being welcoming of everyone and focused on mercy mean. The eunuch in question here wasn’t just some guy who wanted to be baptized and whom Philip baptized as a matter of fact, to boost statistics.

The Hebrew Bible is very clear that “the law forbids the community of the Lord to accept anyone who has undergone destruction or removal of their sexual organs” (cf. Deuteronomy 23:2), as is certainly the case with eunuchs. Since St. Philip - like Jesus - was a Jew, and Jesus’ followers at that time were part of the Jewish community, these restrictions would have been know to him and there would have been an obligation to honor and adhere to them. Nonetheless, it must have been Jesus’ imperative to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) that lead Philip to baptize - and thereby welcome into the community of Jesus’ followers - not only a non-Jew, but a member of a different race and of a sexual minority, explicitly outlawed by the Old Testament. None of these obstacles mattered to him, since “[t]he Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.”” (Acts 8:29).

Pope Francis’ homily from this morning also deals with this first reading, instead of the Gospel as is more customary, and focuses on Philip’s attitude towards the eunuch:
“It’s impossible to evangelize without dialogue. It’s impossible. Because you must begin from where the person is, who is to be evangelized. And how important this is. ‘But, father, so much time is wasted because every person has their own story, comes with this or that, their own ideas …’ And, time is wasted. God wasted more time when he created the world, and He did well to do so! Dialogue. Waste time with that person because that person is whom God wants you to evangelize, what’s most important is that you give them the news about Jesus. But the way they are, not the way they ought to be: the way they are now.

Let’s think about these three moments of evangelization: the docility to evangelize; to do what God is asking, secondly, dialogue with people – but in dialogue, one begins from where they are – and thirdly, trusting in grace: grace is more important than all of bureaucracy. ‘What prevents this?’ Remember this. Often we in the Church are a factory of obstacles, because of which people can’t arrive at grace. May the Lord help us to understand this.”
Here, I believe, it is important to bear in mind what Francis means by “evangelizing,” which is “[t]o give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in.” There is no compulsion here, no obligation, no proselytizing. And that St. Philip had the same attitude is clear also from it being the eunuch’s initiative to become baptized. What struck me here is also the great simplicity and obviousness of his request: “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” Having received Jesus’ Good News from Philip, the eunuch has a new optics, through which the obstacles of old become invisible and it is only God’s welcome that can be seen. For the Church to then turn to this guy and say: “Sorry, mate, but you don’t qualify,” would have been absurd and is not at all what St. Philip did.

This brings me to a superb interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, given to Commonweal magazine during his visit to the USA this week, where he speaks about mercy as follows:
“[The] ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy. [...]

Mercy concerns not only individuals. It also an imperative for the church itself. The church defined itself at the Second Vatican Council as a sacrament of God’s grace. How can the church be sacramental, a sign and instrument of mercy, when she herself doesn’t live out mercy? So many people do not perceive the church as merciful. It’s hard. [...]

There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility.”
The key idea to me here is Kasper’s beautifully synthetic: “God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love.” Our own openness to others must be informed by a desire to share with them the joy that we have received from being brothers and sisters of Jesus and we must be weary of placing obstacles between them and God - no matter what they might be.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Francis’ new bishops

That Pope Francis lives a simple life and seeks closeness to people is well known, documented and broadly admired. However, the question of whether his personal conduct has any effect beyond the Pope himself is regularly put on the table, in the context of concerns about whether the Church as a whole is in the process of changing or whether it "only" has an admirable leader. I have to say that this type of question is well founded, since the Catholic Church has 1.2 billion members, over 400 000 priests and around 5000 bishops, and asking whether the behavior of one person, even if it is its leader, can lead to change in that of over a billion is eminently reasonable.

As a result of the above concern, that I shared, I have been keeping an eye on reports about the new bishops who have been appointed since Pope Francis' election as well as on reports about the conduct of other bishops. Instead of dwelling on surgical interventions, like the removal of the German "bishop of bling," the Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, I would like to share with you three examples - two of newly-appointed bishops and one of an established bishop's change of judgment.

Bishop john keenan
Fr. John (wearing a black t-shirt) with a group of students from Glasgow University at the World Youth Day in Brazil last year.

The first instance of a Pope-Francis-like bishop that I noticed was that of John Keenan, the newly-consecrated Bishop of Paisley. His first move was reported by a Scottish daily, The Herald, by saying that he "has shunned the more comfortable address [of the bishop's residence] to move into a parish house in a housing scheme in an area of multiple deprivation." Why did Bishop John do that? His answer was: "[T]o be close to the people of our times," and he went on to describe his choice as follows:
"I've just come from living in a university chaplaincy with a dozen students so I've been living surrounded with the buzz of life and fun. When I was thinking about becoming a bishop I was keen to take as much of that into my new life, finding people who could form a family with me and support me. Priests in Paisley found me a place in St Laurence's, Greenock. I am living with the parish priest, Father Gerry McNellis, lots of parishioners come in and out of the house and it has the sound of laughter that makes me feel at home. I celebrate the parish Mass and am getting to know the people and that's perfect for me."
The buzz of life and living in a family are the key here, which then lead to change: "When people see a church not just giving to the poor and the excluded but being among them and living with them joyfully, then they will really begin to believe there is a way out of the vicious cycle of living for yourself in your own little bubble."

Bishop carl kemme
Bp. Carl in a "selfie" after his consecration.

Next, I read about Carl Kemme, the new Bishop of Wichita, who was consecrated last Thursday and whose choice of how to celebrate the event was very much Francis-like. The Wichita Eagle reported it as follows:
"Kemme has decided to have his pre-ordination luncheon with friends and family [...] across the street from the cathedral at the Lord’s Diner, which serves dinner each night to the needy. The diner’s staff members will prepare the luncheon. “I’ve asked that the meal be ... just a simple meal that we can share in the same place where our brothers and sisters ... rely on that for their daily bread,” Kemme said."
That this is inspired by Francis' example is something that Bishop Carl is explicit about: “His simplicity, his humility, the fact he’s chosen to live in a simpler place and to ride in a regular car and to prefer not the trappings of the pontificate but the real ministry of it I think signals to the whole world and certainly to the church of a whole new dynamic.” And his reaction to first receiving the news is also telling: “Without a doubt, Pope Francis could have chosen a far more qualified candidate. But in God’s mysterious plan, he has chosen me, which is a humbling and sobering experience. I receive all of this as a sign of how God often chooses the least qualified, the weak and the sinful to accomplish his mission in the world.”

Bishop wilton gregory
Abp. Wilton with youth from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The final example I'd like to share is of a different kind. It concerns Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who has been in office for 10 years and who was consecrated bishop another 11 years before he took on his current post. To resolve space limitations at his Atlanta cathedral, he was planning to move out of his residence, so that other priests could move in, and he was going to have a new archbishop's residence built with donated money and land. As the New York Times reported, the plan was to build a "$2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion, with plenty of room to host and entertain." A choice, which in the past would not have been frowned upon since it has to be borne in mind that this was going to be not only the accommodation of the current archbishop, but serve other current and future needs of the Church as well.

However, already during his first meeting with the media since his election, Pope Francis has called for “a church which is poor and for the poor," and Archbishop Wilton's plans were out of sync. The key here is that he himself admitted so when he publicly apologized for them, after concerns were raised by lay members of his diocese. In spite of following a selfless decision making process, which he openly shared with his diocese, Abp. Wilton nonetheless took full responsibility, by saying:
"What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed. [...] I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services. I failed to consider the difficult position in which I placed my auxiliary bishops, priests, deacons and staff who have to try to respond to inquiries from the faithful about recent media reports when they might not be sure what to believe themselves. I failed to consider the example I was setting for the young sons of the mother who sent the email message with which I began this column."
And he proceeded to apologize unreservedly and repeatedly: "To all of you, I apologize sincerely and from my heart." and to put a clear, new process in place, demonstrating again his commitment to listening and his openness to change:
"It is my intention to move deliberately forward and to do a better job of listening than I did before. When I thought this was simply a matter of picking up and moving from one house to a comparable one two miles away, we covered every angle from the fiscal and logistical perspectives, but I overlooked the pastoral implications. I fear that when I should have been consulting, I was really only reporting, and that is my failure. To those who may have hesitated to advise me against this direction perhaps out of deference or other concerns, I am profoundly sorry.

There are structures already in place in the Archdiocese from which I am able to access the collective wisdom of our laity and our clergy. In April I will meet with the Archdiocesan Council of Priests, and in early May our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council (a multi-cultural group of Catholics of all ages, representing parishes of all sizes, who serve as a consultative body to me) will convene. I will ask for the Finance Council of the Archdiocese to schedule an extraordinary meeting. At each of these meetings I will seek their candid guidance on how best to proceed."
While the examples of Bishops John and Carl are greatly encouraging, I am most impressed by Archbishop Wilton - a bishop of 21 years experience who is ready to take responsibility, apologize for an error of judgment and bring about change in his diocese. His example is one of profound humility and illustrates Pope Francis' insistence on the need to acknowledge our failings without letting them hold us back from change and constant renewal.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The salvific atheism of Christ


[Warning: Long read.]

The title of this post is a quote from a conversation between Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and the journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari. There, Ravasi argued that Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) can be described as a “salvific atheism.” An atheism that is juxtaposed with the Resurrection, where Jesus remains the Son even when He doesn’t feel the Father and thereby “plants the seed of the infinite in mortality.” Many shy away from attributing atheism to Jesus in this moment, where He laments His being abandoned by God, with a lot of hand-waving and “as if”s or appeals to reason along the lines of “how could Jesus, who is God, have been abandoned by God?!” Such attempts at denying Jesus’ profound experience of the absence of God may have good motives, but they have always struck me as being misguided, since they obscure the extreme nature of this most important moment of Jesus’ life.

That Jesus underwent a trial of this magnitude, where his suffering drove him to a loss of feeling united with the Father - i.e., the very heart of the Trinity, is the most powerful indication of how far God is willing to go towards us, whose faith is limited at the best of times. He is showing us that He is our brother also in darkness and during experiences of the absence of God.

The importance of this nadir in Jesus’ life (and pinnacle of His self-noughting love) was profoundly understood also by Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement who is now on the path of being considered for sainthood, and by the agnostic Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman.

For Lubich, who with her first companions has spent years focused on putting the Gospel into practice, the realization of the importance of Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross came, when - in 1944 - her spiritual director asked her when Jesus suffered most and declared that he thought it was in his cry of forsakenness on the cross. Looking back to that moment some 56 years later, Lubich described it as follows:
“Right from the start we understood that fullness had another side to it, the tree had its roots. The Gospel covers you in love, but demands everything from you. “If the grain of wheat doesn’t fall to the earth and die – we read in the Gospel of John – it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). And the personification of this is Jesus Crucified, whose fruit was the redemption of humankind. [...] Through a particular circumstance, we came to know that the greatest suffering of Jesus and, therefore, his greatest act of love, was when on the cross he experienced the abandonment by the Father: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This touched us to the depths. And our young age, our enthusiasm, but especially the grace of God, urged us to choose only him in his abandonment, as the means to realize our ideal of love.”
Having identified Jesus’ forsakenness as the pinnacle of his love, Lubich and her companions sought to find, love and console Him in the sufferings of all around them and in themselves:
“From that moment on, we seemed to discover his countenance everywhere. He had experienced within himself people’s separation from God and from each other, and he had felt the Father far from him. We saw him not only in all our personal sufferings, which were never lacking, but in those of our neighbor, often alone, abandoned, forgotten, in the separation between generations, between rich and poor, within the very Church at times, and, later, between churches, then between religions and between persons of different convictions.

But these wounds didn’t frighten us. On the contrary, because of our love for him in his abandonment, they attracted us. He had shown us how to face them, how to live them, how to cooperate in overcoming them when, after the abandonment, he placed his spirit in his Father’s hands: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” giving to humankind the possibility of being restored to itself and to God, and he showed us the way. And so he manifested himself to be the key to unity, the remedy for every disunity. He was the one who recomposed unity between us each time it cracked. In him we recognized and loved the great and tragic divisions of humankind and of the Church. He became our only Spouse.”
During Lent that same year, Lubich meditated on Jesus’ forsakenness in this way:
“He who is life itself was giving himself completely. It was the culmination of his love, love’s most beautiful expression.

All the painful aspects of life conceal his face: They are nothing other than him.

Yes, because Jesus, crying out in his abandonment, is the image of those who are mute: He no longer knows how to speak.

He is the image of one who is blind – he cannot see; of one who is deaf – he cannot hear.

He is the weary person, moaning.

He is on the brink of desperation.

He is hungry ... for union with God.

He is the image of one who has been deceived, betrayed; he seems a failure.

He is fearful, timid, disoriented.

Jesus forsaken is darkness, melancholy, contrast. He is the image of all that is strange, indefinable, that has something monstrous about it. Because he is God crying out for help!

He is the lonely person, the derelict. He seems useless, an outcast, in shock.

Consequently we can recognize him in every suffering brother or sister.”
Finally, Lubich, who has made love of Jesus forsaken her life, describes the following effects of identifying and loving Him in others: “after each encounter in which we have loved Jesus forsaken, we find God in a new way, more face-to-face, with greater openness and fuller unity. Light and joy return; and with the joy, that peace which is the fruit of the spirit.”

To get another, deeply insightful, perspective on this key moment in Jesus’ life, Bergman’s “Winter Light,” that premiered in 1962, has its characters speak about it twice. First, when the pastor of a town, plagued by doubt, breaks down in front of a parishioner who comes to him for help, saying, with obvious anguish and torment throughout:
“If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief!

And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear ... all these things would be straightforward and transparent.

Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation.

There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.

My God...

Why have you forsaken me?

I’m free, free at last.”
Before giving thought to the above, let’s look at the second reference to Jesus’ forsakenness, which comes later, when the disabled sacristan (who didn’t hear the pastor’s lament) shares the following reflection with him:
“Wouldn’t you say the focus on [Christ’s] suffering is all wrong? This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn’t have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus.

And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? I feel that he was tormented far worse on an other level.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They’d lived together day in and day out - but they never grasped what he meant.

They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on - that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out: “God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”
To my mind, the above are two great attempts at an identification with the forsaken, crucified Jesus. The first, the pastor’s, is an identification from within - a re-experiencing of Jesus’ forsakenness at first hand, that leads the protagonist to a wishing away of it all, to a denial of the problem’s reality and a subsequent, forced declaration of freedom (forced and strained because of how it is portrayed in the movie). The second is an identification from the position of compassion and intuition - the disabled sacristan takes his own physical and psychological sufferings as a basis for inferring the greater magnitude of the latter, and - by extrapolation - intuiting that Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross - the experience of “God’s silence” - must have been most severe.

In many ways it is the pastor’s experience that gives the greatest sense of what it may have been like for Jesus himself, by the anguish and despair that it presents. The sacristan’s monologue, in turn, is - to my mind - already a source of hope in that it demonstrates another’s capacity to intuit my despair and therefore be lead to compassion.