Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Catholic atheist?

On public radio I called myself a Catholic atheist, or did I say I’m an atheist Catholic? I can’t remember. In any case, people ask me, “How does that work?”

Culturally I am Catholic. Every school I graduated from—grade school to grad school—was Catholic. From the beginning of my life to the present, Catholicism informs me, shapes me, inspires me, piques my interest, and suffuses the air I breathe.

I am an a-theist or a non-theist because I do not have belief in a god or gods, which is theism. If you’re a religious person, you may protest,
I don’t believe in idols; I believe in God!
But I think you believe in a being outside of yourself, external and superior to nature. I don’t. I believe in a Source not superior to nature, but in nature, enlivening nature—“God” in all and all in “God.” I imagine you protesting,
That’s what we believe in!
If you agree with me that “God” is not outside of us but within us (the Catholic hierarchy doesn’t like this), I may accept that you don’t believe in an idol. But I know my idea of what we call “God” differs from you if you never refer to this Transcendent Reality as “she” or “it.” If you worship “Him,” you worship a particular image—an idol.

I notice that atheists who argue against religious belief consistently refer to the “God” they argue does not exist as “He” or “Him.” Dead giveaway. They’re talking about an idol I don’t believe in either. HeHimHis dominate God-talk not only among religious persons—it infests the God-talk of all people. I do not believe in someone, in a personality or individual outside of and superior to us, as most of our Bible and religious literature endorses.

So this is how I differ from most Catholics. I also differ from atheists, those who deny the existence of any spiritual reality. An atheist mystic—yes, I believe he’s a mystic—whom I respect for his honesty and deep spirituality writes,
Spirit is not the cause of nature.
I believe the reverse. Spiritual reality and physical reality are two sides of the same All That Is (“God”), but spirit or consciousness is prior to its physical manifestation.
What we call “God” surpasses any language, but the words of my friend David Steeves come closer to my experience than most religious language does:
I tried to be an atheist, but it goes against my personal experience of reality. Like you, I have core beliefs about the existence of something which is universal in all things in the universe. I can feel it, in meditation I have experienced it, but it is not something that can be described. I believe it to be the source of all religious expression, all religions.
Each person, each culture filters experience and creates belief according to their understanding. How we form our belief says more about us than it does about anything else.
Religious myth presents a huge problem for non-believers. I know many religious people who are perfectly aware that religious myth is myth. They distinguish between fact and myth. They distinguish between religious myth and “myth” in popular parlance where myths are simply foolish beliefs. Religious myths, however, are stories that convey messages impossible to spell out in rationalistic prose.

Conversely, I know atheists who demonstrate a high level of ethical integrity and a yearning for spiritual communication. I believe they deny spiritual reality because they conflate the term “religious” with “spiritual.” When I hear atheists interviewed, it’s obvious to me that they haven’t “lost faith” as I understand faith—trust in spiritual power (also the definition I heard at the School of Theology in the 1980s). What these atheists have lost is religious belief; they figured out that the religious myths they were told to believe lack factual truth. This does not render the symbolic stories useless; it does make believing them inappropriate. Atheists are right to reject literal belief in religious myths.

Here I say more to explain my claim to be a Catholic atheist. If this subject fascinates you, as it does me, you’ll like the book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville.

A Catholic atheist 2, July 6, 2012
Mary Lou asked a great question.
I am wanting to know how you come to the understanding that God is not superior to creation [in previous post]. I am open to hearing your explanation. I have always thought of God as superior to us creatures.
Thank you. I await hearing from you to help me evolve in my understanding.
I happen to know that her humble manner belies surpassing spiritual intelligence.
I do relate to God as “superior to us creatures,” and when I wrote the post, a little niggle in me said it required an explanation. So here goes.

The God-image of a superior personality is used to justify hierarchy and power-over, and I chafe at this. That is what was working in me when I objected to the word “superior.” Transcendence is way beyond us and in that sense superior, but for the sake of correcting a troublesome concept of church authority, it’s more useful to think of God as Source than as superior being.

To elaborate, divinity is within all creation—God in all and all in God. With that understanding, I believe we creatures all are
Begotten offspring of God,
Born of Source before all ages,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God,
Begotten not made,
One in being with Source.

Jesus Christ symbolizes and personifies this reality within us, so deeply recessed that our ego personalities frequently have no inkling of it. Another way of conceiving and expressing the mystery is to say that physical creation manifests The Within or Divinity; it’s the outer form of an inner reality we call “God.”

I encase “God” in quotation marks to remind us that our images of this Source are only images; our words always are inadequate, always miss the mark. But words are important because they shape us, guide us and inform us.

I should add that, in difficulty of any kind, yielding to Spirit/Source and trusting it utterly brings peace. It’s a sure-fire prescription, a silver bullet for every ill—trust guidance from Within. Would that world powers knew this.
If trusting God utterly means God is superior, so be it. But I do not accept the statement, “God is a superior being.” The little article "a" conjures up an individual, an idol.

While I’m commenting on my previous blog, I’ll continue. I implied that our religious literature endorses the idea of God as a personality or individual. Christian God-talk personifies God, as do all religions—that’s how we get idols. If the personifications were treated correctly by, for instance, mixing female with male images, the God-talk would not generate idolatry. But Christian religious leaders not only fail to educate in this manner, they actively campaign against it.

Priests do not dare change “Father” to “Mother” in the Mass. They do not dare replace “Lord” with non-hierarchical terms. Thus, imposed liturgical language contributes to ignorance and to idolatry.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Super orthodoxy?

Hostility but gotta laugh, May 30
I had planned to post less here in order to leave time for work on a sequel to God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. But the power struggle in the Catholic Church holds too much interest for me because of its tremendous importance to the paradigm shift occurring in the whole world.

The Catholic Church
• Is the oldest Christian denomination, its history spanning changes in belief and practice from the time of the Roman Empire,
• has the largest global reach of Christian denominations,
• has the most visibly sexist governing system of Christian denominations,
• has a large body of women—religious sisters—esteemed for their illustrious contributions to society,
• has officials visibly uncomfortable with today’s evolving changes in gender balance.

S. Theresa Kane
gained prominence when she greeted Pope John Paul II on his visit to the U.S. in 1979 and asked him about ordaining women. Her thoughts, briefly excerpted here, about the Vatican’s power play over the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are fascinating.
. . . LCWR has not been received well at Vatican institutions, . . . We have spent an enormous amount of our membership money on this whole project, and now we're being asked to do it again. And it's just really not fair to the members.

. . . at the LCWR assembly this summer . . . I think those men should be at that meeting and it should be a priority and they should attend all of it. . . . They should be coming to us now.

. . . there is great hostility toward the LCWR. I think it's probably woven among the American bishops as well as the men in the Vatican, and I don't know how we get through that kind of a blockage.

We're calling for full participation of women in the church. That means that women have to fully participate and have an equal voice.

Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan, the president of the U.S. bishops, is here in New York, and I haven't heard him say one single word about this.

There was a time when U.S. bishops who were working with sisters would come to our assembly, and we really had some good dialogue. And then I think there was a real shift after Pope John Paul II became pope.

We don't want to upset the priests or bishops too much because we've worked very closely with them for so long. And we have a nice, comfortable relationship.

What do you think about the idea of LCWR letting go of its canonical recognition and just becoming a voluntary organization?
I think there are forces in the Vatican and the hierarchy that would be happy if we did it.

If you go noncanonical, you remove yourself as the thorn in the Vatican's side.
That's correct. That's absolutely right. . . . But who knows? . . . there's much of divine intervention and divine providence that can come along.

June 1

The Leadership Conference of Religious Women released a statement saying the Vatican critique
was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency, . . .
Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission. The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.
As the church and society face tumultuous times, the board believes it is imperative that these matters be addressed by the entire church community in an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and integrity, . . .
Church men in charge are terrified and bewildered by the changes they feel in their bones. Desperately they’re hanging on to power as it slips away from them. I imagine them thinking,
“What’s this world coming to if we can’t even condemn the same sins anymore? Homosexuality, contraception, divorce, radical feminism—it used to be so easy to judge. Women! Acting as if they had the right to make decisions on their own. It’s all discombobulating.”

I have seen no more succinct and incisive summary and analysis of the whole affair than this by a parish priest.
The problem with the Vatican approach is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men, making a last gasp to save a crumbling kingdom lost long ago for a variety of reasons.
He explains why “the structure of the church itself” caused the present-day problems.


Catholics and others who follow religion news are holding their sides, hooting and swaying with laughter over the antics of Catholic hierarchs. U.S. bishops are investigating Girl Scouts, suspicious that they might contradict church teachings on contraception and abortion. I can’t give a better response than Dennis Coday’s in National Catholic Reporter:
First they came for the women religious, then they came for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, then they came for St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, and now the Girl Scouts.

The problem is clearly stated in the Girl Scout mission: "Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”

I bet those courageous, confident girls also learn to think for themselves and ask questions. I bet some of them learn leadership skills. That can’t be good.
Serenely unconscious of their comical effect, right-wing bishops keep on playing the fool. Sensible bishops have had enough, revealed Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne. Instead of just dissenting internally, moderate bishops now say publicly that the bishops’ campaign charging the Obama administration with “threats-to-freedom” (scroll down to my “View from the left”) amounts to anti-Obama politicking.

Unseemly behavior from bishops, and there are more signs that Church authority is losing dignity.

The pope, vying for a position in hierarchical pettiness, orders Germans to stop saying Jesus died for all and to say he died "for many." Only one of the changes in liturgical language that invite derision.

The Vatican is roiling after the pope’s butler was arrested for leaking information that breaks the Vatican code of secrecy.
The Italian press has been filled with speculation that the butler, one of a limited number of people who have access to the Pope's private quarters, was a pawn in a game of intrigue and struggle for power inside the Holy See.
And a monsignor in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is grilled on the witness stand. A priest identified as a sexual abuser, AWOL from his archdiocese and from his treatment center, showed up in Florida.
Didn't you wonder whether he still had young people staying at his house, the prosecutor asked. Didn't you worry that he might sexually abuse more young people?

"I didn't think so at the time," Lynn told the grand jury. And what evidence did you have to go on that Gana wasn't abusing anybody, the grand jury prosecutor wanted to know.

"Only his word," the monsignor said. . .

[Why didn’t he investigate?] “I guess if I wanted to go down, I could have. It didn't occur to me . . . It wasn't that big of a deal at the time.”
Not a big deal at the time—the time when children and women counted much less than men in the hierarchy. But now their power is crumbling. The Vatican is moving closer to its own Arab spring.

We can stop getting angry at ridiculous lords lording it over us. It's time to laugh at the foolishness.

May 23

Every time a group of Catholics breaks new ground, it gets flak from some controlling power—an archbishop, the Vatican, a group of bishops, maybe a priest. In this patriarchal institution, religious women frequently rouse hierarchical censure because their high level of intelligence, education, and administrative experience leads to independent thinking, unwelcome in this bastion of male privilege.
After Vatican II, many communities of nuns changed their dress, rules, and practices. When sisters in his Archdiocese of Los Angeles moved out of medieval habits to reform their ministry in keeping with the Council document Perfectae Caritatis, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre displayed a classic instance of power abuse.

S. Anita Caspary led her sisters through the Vatican II reforms, enduring McIntyre’s wrath and hierarchical politics. Now deceased, she is quoted in a Huffington Post article:
Slowly we came to realize that what we claimed for ourselves—the right to make decisions affecting our personal lives—we could not surrender. . . .
Women were always secondary among priests, governors, and men in general. The dependency of women religious on the hierarchy wasn't a choice, it was prescribed. And we didn't believe in it.
Pope John Paul II threw male power at women in a number of ways, and that’s why I find his cult and the process of canonizing him exceedingly distasteful. In his 1995 decree, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he ordered the entire church to stop discussing women’s ordination, apparently hoping in that way to kill the whole idea. We know that his power play ultimately did not succeed.

The fact of Catholic women priests cannot be denied, and they bring a new vibrancy to Catholic ministry. On April 15, Bernie Sykora of our womanpriest congregation, Mary Magdalene, First Apostle—we owe our founding to Bernie—was ordained a deacon on her way to becoming a priest. Ordaining her was our bishop, Regina Nicolosi, who described the new, vibrant ministry of women priests to people on the margins:
The elderly are cared for with love and respect, including an older Catholic priest. The Gospel of justice, inclusivity, love and compassion is preached by you to all, to straight or GLBT people, black or white, wealthy or poor, male or female.
Frequently Regina (this movement is not fond of titles) refers to “our Brother Jesus,” and she has suggestions for “our brothers in the hierarchy.”
Tell them to change their discussion about women to a discussion with women. . . .

Tell our brothers to shift the emphasis away from the bedroom to the sacristy when they are dealing with women’s issues. I would imagine that celibate, elderly male bishops have more expertise in the latter than in the former.
I often hear progressives lament low levels of understanding and the slow pace of change. I get entrapped, too, in worries over the world’s injustice and violence. Then I remind myself of a truth expressed by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in "We Were Made for These Times":
It is not given to us to know which acts, or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing . . .
Each of us can do what she is guided to do each day—it is enough—and the larger picture changes over time. Pinkola Estes says,
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. . .

Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
Who knew that defiance of power abuse is simply showing soul?
Ah, but the meaning of showing soul . . . that takes some contemplation. The Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCWR) has released the Pinkola Estes quotation as a prayerful response to the Vatican’s censure. I trust these religious women to understand better than most what it means to “show soul.”

How long super orthodoxy? June 21
Catholic religious leaders—monks and nuns, theologians, musicians, parish coordinators and educators—must endure moments of anguish as they watch their church officials shoot themselves in the foot over and over again. But it is humorous for those of us who for decades have watched the power shift in gender relations. (Years ago I had a letter in NCR saying that burgeoning woman-power scares the hell out of the men in the Vatican.)

The latest foolish move by Catholic officials was banning the award-winning book Just Love by S. Margaret Farley, a respected Catholic moral theologian. Amazon sales of the 6-year-old book surged dramatically as a result, indicating in a comic way the effectiveness of Vatican censure. In the book, masturbation, homosexuality, and remarriage after divorce are treated with an evolved moral understanding instead of parroted official statements.

The action by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Inquisition, comes after the same body ordered the Leadership Conference of American nuns to revise its activities and obey an archbishop appointed to oversee them, and after U.S. bishops criticized another award-winning work by another Catholic nun and esteemed theologian, S. Elizabeth Johnson. Hierarchical rebukes lack their intended effect. U.S. theologians applaud their censured fellows and rallies around the U.S. support nuns in what seems a rebuke of the Vatican.

The chickens are coming home to roost after the campaigns of two popes. The second Vatican Council in the 1960s tried to disperse institutional power concentrated in Rome to bishops around the world, but Pope John Paul II reversed the reforms of the Council. During the nearly thirty years of his tenure, he appointed bishops and cardinals loyal to his power center in the Vatican. Chief advisor in opposing Vatican II reforms was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the office formerly known as the Inquisition and became Benedict XVI, triumphing over “stop-Ratzinger” liberal cardinals. I know one gay priest who nearly despaired over the news that Ratzinger had turned pope.

Forward-looking bishops now are in the minority. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, once a strong voice promoting social justice and opposing war, has degenerated into an ultra-right body. It struggles to be taken seriously with its demands to be obeyed as “the magisterium” while taking stands that few intellectuals respect—opposing the Affordable Care Act against the considered opinion of Catholic health care experts (nuns), and to the delight of comedians, announcing its investigation of the Girl Scouts.
I don’t regard it a coincidence that patriarchal church officials direct many of their criticisms at females, and I wonder how much fear of woman-power motivated the Vatican’s overthrow of ICEL. Currently U.S. bishops are campaigning for “religious freedom” while campaigning against gays being allowed to marry and continuing their discrimination against females. Does the irony in this need to be spelled out?

Power struggles have been part of church history since Jesus of Nazareth died—Paul was a very controversial guy. We need go no further than epistles in the New Testament to see that the Church has a long history of dissension and polemic. Today, gender and sex play a prominent role in religious power contests. Like John Paul, Benedict poses as a nice old man reaching out to the world, but super orthodoxy and anti-feminine power grabs emanate from his Vatican.
Taking the long view, we can be assured that ultra-conservatism will not rule in perpetuity.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A universe of threes—TRINITY

In the name of the Mother and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Daughter, and of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
[creator, preserver, dissolver/restorer]
In the name of Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
In the name of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
In the name of Juno, Artemis, and Hecate.

Religions are full of trinities. Our speech is full of trinities. Ever notice it? I do because I’m a writer and notice the tendency to group in threes. Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Ours is a three-dimensional universe with height, width, and depth in space; past, present and future in time; and three states of matter—solid, liquid, and gas. Scientists now think there are universes with different sets of dimensions that we can’t fathom because our minds are shaped and limited by certain constraints of our minds (thus Immanuel Kant). Because threeness structures our universe, the Trinity appropriately symbolizes spiritual reality here. And that brings me to my usual annoyance with the liturgy on Trinity Sunday, last Sunday.

The imposed Mass language, ordered by the Vatican, ensures that genuine enlightenment will not happen during Catholic services. We are to remain locked in the limitations of familiar formulas.

Gregory of Nyssa, considered the most brilliant in the trinity of Cappadocian theologians establishing Trinitarian theology, clearly stated there is no gender in divinity. Any reflection on the Trinity should START with the inadequacy of the formula “Father/Son.” It is not enough to admit that God is not three guys in the sky if this formula remains unchanging. It yields two mistaken impressions—that God is distinct individuals and that God is male.
Christian leaders have the responsibility to help correct popular misconceptions, and the only way to disrupt the idolatry—the worship of three distinct idols—is to mix the metaphors, most effectively, to mix female with male symbols.

There is no disagreement about the primary meaning of the trinitarian symbol—unity in diversity/diversity in unity or relationships. The Trinity tells us to get along despite differences, to love no matter what (Jesus’ message too). It’s all we need to know about the Divine and all we need for leading a good life.
Decades ago while studying Christian theology, I read an article that has stayed with me and gained force with the passage of time because its truth has become ever more strikingly evident. The idea is this: Relationships form the heart of spirituality and give the greatest satisfaction in life. If we have healthy relationships, we don’t need to worry about getting along with God. Scores of stories tell of dying people mending broken relationships and strengthening good ones. Close to passing over to the Other Side, they know what’s important.

So much of the top-down thrust in Catholic messages today focus on the opposite; they portray God as a being distinct from us, over us, demanding homage. Worse, they tell us to obey a few religious overlords (“the magisterium”) with “keys to the kingdom,” a pernicious idea to plant in pious minds. Huge numbers of Catholics leave the Church—one in three Americans raised Catholic—because they don’t buy it.

Mass language subverts the essential message of Trinity by glorifying certain idols, when getting along with each other is the challenge we should concentrate on. Our religion reveres the spiritual master Jesus, a man, but to represent the meaning of the Trinity, "Mother/daughter” would be as correct as “Father/Son.” I challenge any theologian to argue against this. The Father/Son formula is sexism in God-talk, more abusive than sexism in people-talk.