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The Traditional Religious Definition of Human Life – Part V:

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part V: The Traditional Religious Definition of Human Life

In this series we have looked at the changing understanding of God throughout human history. We have tried to separate the God experience of transcendence, wonder and awe from the God explanation that has ranged from animism to fertility cults and mother worship to a God understood after the analogy of a tribal chief and currently to a kind of monotheistic oneness that has become all but universal, yet is still conceived in widely different ways across the great religious systems of the world. Despite all the claims made by religious people that they possess certainty in their formulation of who God is, the fact remains that no human mind and no human religion can finally capture in words or creeds the fullness of the mystery of God, primarily because all concepts of God are the products of the finite human mind. This means that the regular religious attempts to do so or to claim that this has actually been accomplished are little more than expressions of human idolatry. In spite of the regular refrain of ecclesiastical propaganda, there is and cannot be any such thing as “one true religion” or “one true church.” So, how can we think “different” about religion and how can we accept “uncertainty” in religion if we do not face this truth? The fact is we cannot. Imperialistic religion is always employed in the quest for power and it will always seek to impose itself upon the world. Why? Because it is the nature of human beings to build a mighty fortress behind which they can hide their rampant insecurity. If anyone is allowed to question official truth then its power to provide security disappears. That is why “religious talk” so often devolves into irrationality.

When God is defined as a supernatural power, who is both ready and willing to come to our aid, then without realizing it we have also defined human life in a negative way. To be human is now to be inadequate. We are creatures who must seek the favor of a theistic God. To illustrate this reality look at the image of God and the resulting definition of human life that dominates especially Western religious systems. In the language of our religious systems we portray ourselves either as children relating to a heavenly father or as convicted felons standing before a “hanging judge.” We are supplicants eager to please the authoritarian deity. That is why so often in our liturgical language we find ourselves saying: “Have mercy, have mercy!” Can anyone not understand how distorting that stance can be to our humanity? Is it possible for us to escape this self-definition without abandoning the traditional and popular concept of the external, supernatural God who is our parent and our judge? I do not think so. That is why a religious reformation is required for the survival of Christianity that will enable us to “think different” and to “accept uncertainty.” If we are to find a way to escape the negativity that traditional religion pours upon the dignity of human life, we will inevitably have to move away from the idea of God as a supernatural, external being. The deeper question is: “Can we move away from the theistic definition of God without moving away from God? I believe we can, but traditional religious leaders will not make that distinction and because they will not they will almost inevitably distort totally what I am trying to say. Allow me to try to unravel this torrent of theological words.

Traditionally, those of us who are the recipients of and practitioners in the Judeo-Christian faith system that marks the Western World have in our definition of God attributed to God all of the things of which we human beings are lacking. God is infinite, we are finite. God is immortal, we are mortal. God is perfect, we are imperfect. God is all powerful, omnipotent, we are limited in power. God is everywhere, omnipresent; we are bound to one place at a time. God is all knowing, omniscient, we are limited in knowledge. God is timeless, we are bound by time. These ideas seem so obvious, but the sum of these definitions of God produces a picture of human life that is lacking in both talent and in ultimate worth. God is the heavenly extension of all of the things about which we feel inadequate. So, against this common definition of God, we human beings have been taught to judge ourselves to be inadequate creatures. This insufficiency of human life forms one of the major motifs of Christian worship. In our liturgies we human beings judge ourselves constantly as those lacking in worth. We sing of God’s “amazing grace,” but we soon learn that what makes God’s grace so amazing is that it saves “a wretch like me.” We sing to God the flattering words “How great thou art,” only to learn that God’s greatness lies in the divine ability to stoop to save a sinner like me. We refer to God in our hymns as the potter and to ourselves as the passive clay begging God to “mold me and make me.” We tell God in worship that “there is no health in us,” that “we can do nothing good” without divine help, that we are not even worthy to “gather up the crumbs” from the divine table. We portray this external deity as an inescapable judge from whose all-seeing gaze we can never hide. The plea for mercy that emanates from the lips of worshipers might be appropriate for a child standing before an abusive parent or for a convicted criminal standing before a sentencing judges, but is it ever appropriate for a human being standing before a God whose name is Love?

This definition of human life is also the primary background theme in the way we Christians traditionally tell the Christ story. Jesus comes, we say, as the savior of the sinner, the redeemer of the fallen and the rescuer of the lost. We are portrayed as helpless victims begging for the intervening God to come to our aid. We are pictured as standing in the lostness of our own weakness and guilt, waiting for the punishment we deserve. When raised to our awareness it is a strange portrait of human life, but it is so pervasive that we have been dulled to its debilitating presence and are thus surprised when it is lifted into our conscious minds.

How does this God then come to our aid? We say God sent Jesus to save us from our sins. How did Jesus affect this salvation? “He died for our sins,” we reply. That is, the unforgiving Father had to punish someone and since we were not able to bear the divine wrath, God punished Jesus in our place. Is that a healthy way to view God, Jesus or ourselves? One can, however, hardly go to a Christian church without hearing this aspect of the salvation story being proclaimed. Protestants have made a mantra out of the phrase, “He died for my sins,” repeating it unquestioningly week after week. Roman Catholics refer to their primary act of worship as the reenactment of the crucifixion. They call it “the sacrifice of the Mass,” because it makes timeless the moment when Jesus suffered and died for my sins. All Christians have made a fetish out of the cleansing blood of Jesus. Protestants want to bathe in it so that their “sins might be washed away.” Evangelical hymn books are filled with such titles as: “Washed in the Blood,” “Saved by the Blood” and “There’s a Fountain filled with Blood!” One Lenten hymn in my Episcopal hymnal exhorts God to “bleed on me.” Catholics on the other hand speak of being cleansed inwardly by “drinking the blood of Jesus” in the Eucharist. When these aspects of this “blood ritual” are raised to our consciousness, we experience a sense of repulsion. Yet we Christians wallow in this mentality Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Lots of people appear to drop out of the church because they find worship vaguely uncomfortable. Perhaps one of the reasons is that this theology of human depravity and degradation unconsciously pushes us down into the depression of feeling worthless.

When we analyze this theological understanding we find that it misrepresents God, distorts Jesus and destroys our human dignity. It is wrong in every detail! First, it turns God into an unforgiving monster who must have a victim for the wrath of the offended deity. This is a concept of God apart from love, forgiveness and compassion. Unable to extract the payment due from us sinners, God kills the son to accomplish divine justice. This makes god the ultimate child abuser. What a dreadful deity this is.

Second, this theology turns Jesus into a chronic victim. His love is seen as a willingness to accept divine abuse on our behalf. Perhaps that is why we have kept him hanging on his cross in the symbol of the crucifix. This allows us to crucify him daily through our ongoing sinfulness.

Third, this theology dumps enormous amounts of guilt, unbearable guilt, onto us when we are worshipers. That is why we are taught to beat our breasts and to plead for mercy. We are, this theology proclaims, responsible for the death of Jesus. Our sins resulted in his crucifixion. We are all “Christ killers.” Guilt has become the coin of the realm in church life. It is “the gift that keeps on giving!” Has the imposition of guilt ever produced life and wholeness in anyone? Is guilt not rather one of the most distorting emotions with which human beings have to deal? Have you ever known anyone to be made whole by being told what a wretched and miserable sinner he or she is? How does this square with the promise attributed to Jesus by the Fourth Gospel that his purpose was to bring abundant life to all?

The final thing that is wrong with this theology is that it is simply not true. It is based on bad anthropology and a bad understanding of what it means to be human. One cannot build good theology on bad anthropology. When this series continues, I will begin the process of dismantling this debilitating theology by looking at our human origins through a different lens. We are not “fallen” creatures who were born in sin. “Original sin” is a concept that has to go. With it goes the portrait of Jesus as the rescuer of the fallen and the image of God as the external and displeased deity. It will be good riddance! To go here, however, will require that we “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” Not to go there is to face the death of the Christian faith. So stay tuned.

~John Shelby Spong

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Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities


The inaugural convention of the American Catholic Council gathered an estimated 2,000 reform-minded Catholics endorsed a 10-point Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that asserts primacy of conscience and the right of every Catholic to have a voice in the way the church is run, as well as an obligation to advance the proclamation of the Gospel to the world and the church’s social teaching.

Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

The introduction to the Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities cites the U.S. Bill of Rights and international documents on human rights to say that in joining the church, Catholics do not give up those fundamental human rights. In keeping with Catholic teaching that rights also involve responsibilities, it links the two throughout.

Its main text says that Catholic rights and responsibilities include:

1. Primacy of conscience. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to develop an informed conscience and to act in accord with it.

2. Community. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in a eucharistic community and the right to responsible pastoral care.

3. Universal ministry. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to the community’s call to ministerial leadership.

4. Freedom of expression. Every Catholic has the right to freedom of expression and to the freedom to dissent.

5. Sacraments. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to participate in the fullness of the liturgical and sacramental life of the church.

6. Reputation. Every Catholic has the right to a good name and to due process.

7. Governance. Every Catholic and every Catholic community has the right to a meaningful participation in decision-making, including the selection of leaders.

8. Participation. Every Catholic has the right and responsibility to share in the interpretation of the Gospel and church tradition.

9. Councils. Every Catholic has the right to convene and speak in assemblies where diverse voices can be heard.

10. Social justice. Every Catholic has the right and the responsibility to promote social justice in the world at large as well as within the structures of the church.

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The reality of celibate life:Henri Nouwen

The reality of celibate life: Reflections from Henri Nouwen

by A.W. Richard Sipeon Oct. 01, 2010

Henry Nouwen (Taken from the cover of Jurjen J Beumer's book Henri Nouwen: A Restless Seeking for God.)

Henry Nouwen (Taken from the cover of Jurjen J Beumer’s book Henri Nouwen: A Restless Seeking for God.)Recently I was in the process of cleaning out some files and ran across a July 1991 letter from Henri Nouwen. He and I had spent a year together during the mid 1960s in Topeka, Kansas at the Menninger Foundation’s training programs for clergy counselors. We had kept in casual contact afterward. He moved on to professorships at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard and traveled the troubled world while I settled into clinical practice, married life, and part time work at a Catholic seminary, college, and medical school in Baltimore.

By the time Henri wrote this letter he had already become a huge spiritual resource through his writings, retreats, lectures, teaching, and personal contacts. Most of his 40 books had been published. In contrast I had just recently (in 1990) published my first book, A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy.

In February I had gone to Daybreak — a L’Arche community near Toronto — to spend retreat time with Henri. While I was there he was working on The Return of the Prodigal Son (in my mind the most personally integrated of all his books). We talked about his writing and he gave me a copy of the Rembrandt poster that meant so much to him.

This was no silent retreat either; I accompanied Henri on his daily round of duties to visit his beloved sisters and brothers — the developmentally disabled in the L’Arche community houses. I remember well our daily exchanges. Henri was focused on the idea of Communion — evidence of his creative process and fecundity.

It came up in evening conferences and lunch meetings with local pastors and in a formal lecture in Toronto. Experiencing all his ministries made it easy to decipher where his inner longings were at that time — to hear the words “you are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” His two books published in 1992, Life of the Beloved and the completed Return of the Prodigal Son confirmed the observation.

During our last days together Henri shared the spiritual-emotional crisis that descended upon him a year and a half before. The content — or rather the empty abyss — of his depression was clear: the loneliness of celibacy.

After resigning his teaching appointments and making a commitment to Daybreak he had for the first time in his life opened himself to a human relationship and love he had never experienced. He was faced with himself as never before — his sexuality and celibacy were naked and undefended. It was a heart wrenching emotional experience during which he kept a diary.
Rembrandt's 'The Prodigal Son'Rembrandt’s ‘The Prodigal Son’
He wanted to talk about two things. The first was whether he should publish the diary that recorded such a soul wrenching and intimate struggle. I said it would be helpful to many folks who suffer. He finally agreed with many friends who had the same thought and Inner Voice of Love (1996) was published four months after his death.

Henri was aware of my clinical work with priests and seminarians. He and I met in Baltimore while he was still teaching at Yale and I was teaching at St. Mary’s Pontifical Seminary.

We shared our current interests. Henri’s were meditation and spirituality. Mine were celibacy and sexuality. Henri was still the self-described “restless, nervous, intense” person who asked me for some encouragement about the talks on meditation he was going to present to the seminarians. He expressed surprise at my observations about the amount of sexual activity among the students and faculty.

In 1991 the second topic he wanted to talk about was celibacy and sexual orientation. Mainly his questions were about orientation. What really is it? Is it possible to alter it? What are the origins? What are its implications for celibacy? How does it affect spirituality? He was not quite at a point of personal resolution then.

But Henri was the genuine article. He was exactly what he appeared — a priest struggling for integrity, exhausting himself in the service of others.

Henri’s depression — which he named ‘a struggle through anguish to freedom’ — reminded me of Thomas Merton’s account of his love affair with “M” after so many years in the monastery (found in Volume 6 of Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom). Merton wrote feely about his loneliness, desolation, and celibate conflicts precipitated by his relationship with her.

Both priests (Merton and Henri) came to grips with the deepest levels of their sexuality through the attachment and loss of a love relationship. Those depths cannot be fathomed without squeezing the life out of loneliness and embracing it until it renders aloneness (genuine solitude) full of meaning. The lives of many saints show that depression is involved in that process.

After I returned home I sent Henri copies of two talks I had given: “Spirituality and Integrity” at Princeton Theological Seminary Dec. 4, 1990 and “The Celibate/Sexual Agenda” for The CORPUS National Meeting for a renewed priesthood June 22 in New York.

This communication prompted his letter to me.

He said that he enjoyed the Princeton talk and “got a lot out of it.” But he had reservations about the New York talk. After stating that he had many questions he would like to talk more about he wrote:

“I also feel there is a dimension to the issue of celibacy that is absent from your presentation and, by its absence, gives your presentation an overly strong ‘political’ character. Somehow I think that we really need to think more deeply about the mystery of communion and start talking in a new way about sexuality from there. I am certainly not yet able to do so and I find myself quite wordless around this very sacred area. But I do feel that we have to move beyond pointing to the many weaknesses and failures in living a credible sexual ethic to a rediscovery of the deep meaning of the ‘vacare Deo.’ [“to be empty for God”]”Henri was not the first to question my sense of mystery. Catherine de Hueck thought that my presentations during a retreat I gave at Madonna House – a Catholic lay community of men — in 1961 were “overly psychological.” But my guide has always been grounded in Aquinas’ dictum that “grace builds on nature” and the patristic pronouncement: “The glory of God is man fully human.”

Henri and I never got a chance to have those conversations.

It takes nothing away from Henri’s insights when I say the church is suffering its present sexual/celibate crisis precisely because it has not tolerated enough talk about the mental-emotional-sexual dimensions of celibacy.

So many sexual abusers have words for the spiritual, the mysterious, and the mystagogic dimensions of celibacy. But they do not practice celibacy. They cannot tolerate the examination of the reality of their humanity, sexuality or behavior. Much of their talk about mystery sounds good and can be useful in the mental gyrations necessary for a man or woman to wrestle with — as Fr. Robert Barron put it in 1999 — the “unreasonable, unnatural, and excessive” expression of love that religious celibacy is meant to be.

Many churchmen deem it unseemly, ill mannered, even voyeuristic, to talk about the sexual practices of bishops and priests. Only when transparency and accountability become realities will we be able to move beyond talking about failures, as Henri wanted me to do.

In fact, facing the hard truth about his humanity and sexuality is exactly what Henri had to do in his depression. His psychological agony and struggle were proof of his celibate journey.

Henri died before he found his way with words around what he called “this very sacred area.” But he and Merton helped define the territory that needs to be excavated if celibacy is to be understood and practiced — the emotions of loneliness, deprivation, and loss.

Celibacy is a process. If it is pretense it is hypocrisy — the gravest religious sin.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an astute observer of clerical vice — and virtue and with authority could write that — as written in the Custom House Introduction to The Scarlet Letter — the person “who seemed the most righteous might prove the greatest sinner.”
The crisis of abuse of minors by bishops and priests is the key that is opening the door to the reality of celibate practice. This is where the true mystery will be revealed — truth and facts.

Henri ended his letter to me with a kind endorsement:

“I, personally, feel that you have a great vocation in this area, especially since you are so articulate and well-informed about the many facts and figures of the issues involved. You have important things to say and I have the feeling that rediscovering or reliving the mystical dimension of the sexual life may help you and me and all of us to grow to a reclaiming of live’s [sic] sacredness.I approach the burning bush of religious celibacy with my sandals in hand and with a sense of vocation. I have a sense of the mystery of sexuality/celibacy, but I also know that we have to build on the solid ground of reality — the mental, emotional, and sexual dimensions of celibate process and practice.

[Richard Sipe is a mental health counselor and author who earlier spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest.]

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The Bible – A Divine Gift or an Immoral Treatise?

The Bible
A Divine Gift or an Immoral Treatise?
By Bishop Spong

Cecil B. DeMille, one of the great motion picture producers of the ages, called the Bible “The Greatest Story Ever Told” when he produced and directed a motion picture by that name.

Christopher Hitchens, a well-known transatlantic journalist and political pundit, has recently referred to the Bible in a New York Times review of a book by Philip Pullman, as a “radically immoral book,” citing such things from its pages as the promise of a monopoly on heaven for true believers (John 14) while threatening those who waver with the torment of everlasting fire (Matthew 25).  He found in the figure of Jesus “not a divine presence, but that of a sorcerer and a fanatic,” since the Bible portrayed him as cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it was not the season for figs (Mark 11) and of inflicting a herd of pigs with demons that produced, not “deviled ham” as one wag suggested, but a stampede of pigs and thus the drowning deaths for the livestock of some poor farmers (Mark 5).

What is the nature of this book that can produce such strong and diametrically-opposed sentiments?  There is clearly something both attractive and strange about the book called “sacred scripture,” for in its pages conflicts and contradictions abound.

The Bible has been the best-selling book in the Western world every year since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450.  It is also probably the least read, best-selling book in human history and it is surely the least understood.  It is also simultaneously the most quoted and the most distorted book.  Let me illustrate.

Verses from the Bible still adorn the oratory of politicians designed to give their words both gravitas and authority. It is read in almost every synagogue and church in public worship “wherever two or three people are gathered together.”  When read in these contexts, these readings are usually proclaimed to be “The Word of the Lord!”  Hardly a funeral is conducted in the Western world without some biblical passage being part of the liturgy, whether these funerals are religious or secular.  Book titles, and consequently motion picture titles, are frequently direct quotations lifted from the Bible.  Elected officials take their oaths of office most often with their hands laid on the Bible.  This book not only informs our culture, but it also criticizes it, judges it and blesses it. Yet at the same time there is no book in human history that has been responsible for more pain and suffering in the lives of more people than the book we call “The Holy Bible.”

“His blood be upon us and upon our children (Matt 27:25)” are words the Bible attributed to the Jewish crowd at the time of the crucifixion.  They have been a factor in a series of killing, anti-Semitic activities throughout the centuries reaching a culmination in a final act of orgiastic frenzy, the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust in the 20th century, in a Western, civilized, ostensibly Christian nation..

“I forbid a woman to have authority over a man (1 Tim 2:12),” or “Woman was created for man (1Cor 11)” and “Wives obey your husbands (Ephesians 5)” are just a few of the texts from the Bible that have been used to dehumanize the feminine half of the human race.  In response to the these biblical definitions of what a woman is, higher education was denied to women until the 20th century; the right to vote in national elections was not extended to women until 1920, and the doorways to economic opportunities and just wages have been closed to women until fairly recently.  Even in contemporary churches, we Christians still use the definition of a woman as the property of a man in wedding ceremonies, as one man gives the woman away to another man as if either of these men had or would later own her.

“Slaves obey your masters (Col. 3)” are words right out of the Bible.  Slaves must be returned to the life of bondage, says Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.  The injunction against enslaving a fellow Jew is found in the prophets and the direction to Jews to take their slaves from nearby countries is stated in the Torah. Each of these texts has in the past been enlisted in the service of the human institutions of slavery, segregation and apartheid.  The Pope, known as the Vicar of Christ, has owned slaves with no qualms of conscience, because biblical words have always been available with which to perfume these human evils.  The “Bible Belt” of the South, home of Protestant Evangelical and Fundamentalist religious exponents, the region of our nation where both church going and Bible reading are clearly saluted as values, is the same part of our nation that first established, then protected and fought to defend slavery. After defeat on the battlefield forced these good, Christian people to end slavery, they installed segregation as the law of the land.  When segregation was finally declared illegal, these same evangelical Christians employed police dogs, fire hoses, bull horns and even murder as legitimate tactics to keep segregation alive.  The Southern police, who refused to arrest the guilty and the Southern juries that refused to return appropriate guilty verdicts were made up largely of those who “acknowledged Jesus as my personal savior.”  The Bible, they felt, justified this behavior toward those whose true humanity they could not see.

“A man who lies with a man as with a woman is an abomination.  Both shall be put to death (Lev. 20).”  This is one of nine biblical texts, stretched to the breaking point to cover the visceral, uninformed prejudice that has plagued and victimized gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual people for centuries.  At the Wyoming funeral of Matthew Shepard a young gay man set upon by a group of adults, beaten into unconsciousness and hanged on a fence post in sub-freezing weather until he died, a Baptist minister from Topeka, Kansas, carried a picket sign stating “God says fags should die–see Leviticus 20)”  In more recent history that same minister with that same message, claiming the right of freedom of speech, asked the Supreme Court of this country to protect him against a lawsuit brought by the parents of a member of the armed forces killed in Iraq after he had picketed their son’s funeral ceremony.  There are terrible texts in the Bible and some of these texts have without doubt been used to cause great pain in the lives of many people.  Surely we need to face this dark side of our religious past, but that is not the whole story of the Bible’s history.  Words from the Bible have also been instrumental in creating a quest for learning and thus in forming the great educational institutions in the Western world, from Uppsala University in Sweden, to Cambridge and Oxford Universities in England, to Tubingen and Berlin Universities in Germany, to McGill and Queens Universities in Canada and to Harvard and Yale in the United States. Yet when knowledge challenged religious presuppositions, the Bible-quoting church has been the fiercest critic of knowledge and it became the persecutor of scholars from Galileo to Darwin to Stephen Hawking.

So we have this book that has permeated every aspect of our cultural life and at the same time has caused untold pain, suffering and horror.  What are we to make of it?  What are we to do with it?

Can we extract its benefits and dismiss its ignorance and its self-serving inspiration to violence?  Do we accomplish this by an act of delicate surgery, such as Thomas Jefferson was able to do when, by using his penknife to remove offensive passages, reduced the New Testament to 46 pages of acceptable text?  Or do we dismiss it all as little more than the last vestige of a superstitious world that is no longer and then consign the God we meet in this book to the museums of human religions where this deity can take a place beside the gods of the Olympus, and the gods of the fertility cults who encouraged child sacrifice and temple prostitutes during other now embarrassing stages in human development?  Or can we see the Bible as an imperfect but unfinished chronicle of the human quest for understanding life, finding meaning and exploring transcendence?  Are we able to see the changes in the text that moved our minds from a tribal deity who hated the enemies of the chosen people, to a book that enjoins us to love our enemies?  This latter path offers, I believe, some hope.

I find these universal truths in the Bible that cause me to want to defend this book with passion, despite the abuse it has encouraged throughout history.  Those truths are:

1. Every life is holy.  That is the major theme of the Hebrew Scriptures and that is what I mean when I say I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator.

2.  Every life is ultimately and totally loved.  That is the truth I learn from the Jesus story and what I mean when I say I believe in God the Son.

3.  Every life is called to live into the fullness of its potential, to be all that each of us can be.  That is what I mean when I say I believe in God the Holy Spirit, who calls each of us to the deepest meaning of life.

Those are the essential human convictions that to me are the gifts given to us from the biblical story.  We abandon them at our peril.  So my fight is never to destroy the Bible but to transform it, to separate its wheat from its chaff and to make its underlying convictions available to my world.  I regard that as a worthy vocation.

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Earth – and humanity – cry out

Earth – and humanity – cry out

Mary Colwell printed in Tablet

Christian understanding of a loving God is challenged by natural disasters such as those that have befallen Japan. Is this a moment to rethink mankind’s relationship with the earth?

Buddha survives tsunami in japan

One of the first areas to be swept away by the tsunami in Japan was the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sendai, which serves around 11,000 Catholics; no one knows how many are in the rising death toll, writes Mary Colwell. Ninety miles away from the epicentre of the earthquake and westwards from Sendai is the apparition site of Our Lady of Akita, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a Japanese religious sister, Sr Agnes Sasagawa. In three apparitions in 1973 she is said to have predicted a number of “calamities” so great that they will wipe out much of humanity. It is an area well used to earthquakes, which occur every 40 years or so, so warnings of dire events are not so surprising. The plates of the earth have not finished shifting, the thermal currents driving the motion are still churning and until the day the earth cools humanity will experience earthquakes and some of them will be devastating.

Earthquake in Japan 2011

“Contemplating the beauty of Creation inspires us to recognise the love of the Creator, that Love which moves the sun and the other stars,” said Pope Benedict in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, on 1 January 2010. It is hard to recognise that love, looking at the television images. Instead what we see is a planet that has no regard for humanity at all.

I have attended many Catholic environmental meetings where the theme is based around answering the call to be “stewards of Creation”. The underlying message is that nature should be managed in such a way that we are respectful and share its resources wisely. The earth is treated as the victim and humanity as the greedy oppressors who have caused the problems and must put things right. Then, without warning, this beautiful but misused planet crushes our cities, destroys our nuclear power plants and traumatises people throughout the world. Thousands are dead and we are left confused about nature, God and our role on earth.

Psychologists recognise this as cognitive dissonance, a feeling of tension that comes from holding two conflicting views at the same time. The uncomfortable feelings increase with the importance we give to these competing views and we try to find ways of reducing the anxiety. One way is to dismiss the idea that the earth is a nurturing provider that reflects the face of God but rather is a threat that has to be overcome. Stewardship is rejected and the focus becomes entirely human-centred.

The Greek Orthodox Church has a more realistic view of the interconnectedness of nature and humanity. Rather than be at the top of the chain, human beings are considered part of the ongoing process of Creation. People are not stewards who manage and organise but priests of Creation whose role is to sanctify nature and who are open to the mystery of the creative process. When Job cried out to God in anguish, demanding to know the reason for his suffering, God put him in his place:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding

Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)

The Church has a unique role at this time because of the many widespread environmental problems that threaten disasters in the future: climate change, habitat loss, over-fishing, pollution, the list goes on. All these man-made problems have the potential to cause flooding, drought and starvation.

In July 2010 scientists at Tohoku University in Sendai published their findings following the tsunami in Indonesia. They studied the mangrove swamps that were still intact around the coastal fringes and concluded that mangroves can reduce the impact of a five-metre tsunami wave by up to 80 per cent, particularly if the vegetation is old and established. Coastal features such as salt flats, mud flats and coral reefs dampen the power of waves and considerably reduce storm surges. Yet people are constantly ripping out vegetation around coastlines and building ports and cities on the edge of the sea. Japan’s eastern seaboard is one of the most densely populated in the world. Who spoke out against this development?

This could be a moment to re-engage with God and examine the role of humanity on earth. People cannot control the movements of tectonic plates but they can reduce the effect of natural disasters and change the course they are on to diminish the threats of the future. The Church has a choice: to follow in the wake of disasters and take on the role of comforter of the victims – a valued role – or will it also offer insights and inspiration for a new relationship with nature?

Mary Colwell is a specialist broadcaster and writer on natural history and the environment.

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The mining industry and the God of Life in Peru

Declaration by the Bishop and the Priests of the Diocese of Huaraz
Concerning the Social Problems generated by the Mining Industry in our Region

The mining industry and the God of Life in Peru
originally published in New Catholic Times: Sensus Fidelium Dec 20, 2010
translated by Phil Little 

the Cordillera Blanca - Huaraz Peru

Ancash is  known as the Switzerland of Peru – with its high white covered mountains 6000 m above sea level which is a challenge for mountain climbers from around the world. It is also a very traditional land with people living and working fields much as they have done for centuries. The last time I visited Huaraz in the 1970’s I saw a farmer plowing his field with oxen pulling a wooden plow.

I have for a number of years received updates from Canadian women religious who work in the sierra which is facing devastating consequences due to unrestrained mining activity, much owned by foreign and especially Canadian companies.

The diocese of Huaraz is known to be a “conservative” establishment, which makes this declaration even more astounding.  In the original email, sent by Father Pablo Antonio Carrasco Ferrer, he says:

Huascaran, Ancash

Dear friends,

it is a joy to present to you this communication of the diocese of Huaraz dealing with the different mining problems that the people live with in our area. It is the first time that the Church – particularly that of Huaraz – speaks out about these situations.Hopefully God will assist us to maintain this prophetic mission.

We ask you to help us communicate this message with others.

in the attached document “Huaraz declaration” I have provided a translation to the best of my ability of the original which you can find also as an attachment or in the body of the email below.

If you wish to promote peace, Protect Creation
(letter of Benedict XVI, January 1, 2010)
Declaration by the Bishop and the Priests of the Diocese of Huaraz
Concerning the Social Problems generated by the Mining Industry in our Region

1. The bishop and the priests of the Diocese of Huaraz, witnesses of our Lord who has come to give us the gift of Life in abundance (Jn. 10.10), gathered in the town of Cajacay, conscious of the latest and most grave social problems that seriously affect the life of our people and communities related to the presence of the Mining Company Chancadora Centauro in the vicinity of the lake of Conococha, express our support to the population that cries out for the right to a life with dignity in a healthy environment

2. We reject the actions of excess, of vandalism and actions of violence, the disorder and the attacks on the liberty of

Protests in Huaraz against Centauro mining

persons in their activities, as well as the displacements, produced during the protests of the past week. At the same time we find it curious that the national media organizations paid scant attention to these events

3. We stand in solidarity with the family of of Muñante Willy Cadillo Vergara, killed during confrontations in Catac. We express our concern for the persons injured: both civilian and members of the National Police.

4. We condemn all attempts to appropriate the natural resources that belong to the people of the province of Ancash and to all humanity. At the same time we condemn all activity that threatens the future with contamination of the environment, in this region known eminently for its agriculture and tourism.

5. We denounce other possible sites of environmental contamination in diverse localities of our region, and of those which we do not yet have a full understanding of the situation such as: Mesapata (Catac), Alianza y Tomalamano (Ticapampa), Hércules (Aija), Magistral (Chiquian), Santa Rosa (Jangas), Palca-Rio Llamac (Bolognesi), California (Yungay) and many other sites where mining activity is exercised, informally and formally, including the small, medium and the large mining operations

6. We deplore the ineptitude of the regional and national authorities evident in the slow pace of response to deal with the illegal authorization of exploration grants to the company Chancadora Centauro.

7. We request of the members of the national congress of our region that they present to the Congress of the Republic new legislation that would guarantee protection to those natural areas which are the true wealth and future, including economic, for our region. All mining activity ought to have the approval of the population of the territory who are directly or indirectly affected including those who would live in the basin of the mining operation. Such approval would need to be given in a manner that was democratic, involving community consultation.

8. We call for a will to enter into dialogue each time, in the present or the future, there arise problems or conflict. We especially call upon the authorities to maintain a position of “listening” to the needs and the wishes of our population.

9. We exhort the general population to maintain themselves in a constant state of alertness to be able to bring to public

Street protests against mining companies in Huaraz

awareness all actions of contamination. The social cohesion experienced in these past events can be converted into a means of resistance to dissuade the mining companies from placing profit over life and the protection of the environment.

10. We cry out to the Lord of Life that we can return to a peaceful co-existence involving the general population, the authorities, the companies and the environment, in the exercise of different activities in our region.

We work for peace as the fruit of social justice.

Bishop Eduardo Velásquez Tarazona and all the priests of the Diocese of Huaraz.
CAJACAY, December 15, 2010



Mining license’s cancellation ends Huaraz strikes

Minera Centauro criticized the government after their exploring license was cancelled, reported La República.

Oswaldo Sánchez, a representative from Centauro, said “the government has made decisions based on false information provided by
the Defense [Front of the Conococha Lake] who lied to the people.”

He said the work at Centauro’s operations does not affect the lake. According to Sánchez, “the village of Huambo knows and accepts this.”

A general strike, riots and a highway blockade paralyzed Huaraz for more than a week protesting against a mining concession given to Centauro.

The protesters, organized under the Defense Front of the Conococha Lake, an umbrella organization, argued that the mining company was contaminating the lake which is the water source of the Santa River.

Bus services between Lima and Huaraz were suspended due to a highway blockade on the Pativilca-Huaraz leg. Trucks transporting goods were also stranded and produce started to rot. As a result a critical supply shortage affected hundreds of businesses in Huaraz.

Last Monday, Willy Cadillo Vergara died during a violent confrontation with Peru’s National Police members.

The government decided to cancel Centauro’s permit. As a result the agrarian and farming organizations announced a cease of all blockades for a period of five days until a dialogue table is installed.

President Alan García said the strike against Centauro was provoked by “certain political sectors that take advantage of the misinformation.”

García denied the lack of dialogue as some Front representatives complained about in the past days.

“They use this argument all the time. For these people dialogue means: canceling all mining operations, punish the company, bring a minister and let’s talk,” said García.

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To Care for Everyone’s Home

President of the Peruvian Episcopal Conference and the Bishops of the Jungle Region express their concerns about government

originally found in New Catholic Times : Sensus Fidelium Feb 21, 2011

Decrees of Urgency 001 and 002 2011


Slash and burn agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon

Attached is a document I received this morning. This is an important statement, not only considering the importance of its message, but also looking at who is speaking out. The bishops of Peru following Medellin were for a short period willing to speak out on matters of social significance, but gradually under John Paul II they lost their voice and their willingness to offend people in positions of power. Progressive bishops were quickly replaced. Progressive bishops identified with base communities and the struggle for justice experienced unexplainable and sudden deaths, which were never officially ruled as homicides. In this statement the Bishops of the Amazon region, together with the President of the Episcopal Conference, have spoken out knowing that their voice calling out for justice will not be welcomed by the government nor the international companies eager to exploit mineral resources in the region. Speaking out at this time is not only uncomfortable but dangerous. Other environmental activists have been assassinated in Peru and the government has used its military forces to squash opposition to unbridled exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the high Andes and the Amazon region. This is a document of courage and prophetic witness. It is a sign of hope for the people and the Church of Peru.

jpgIn contrast we can only look at the cowardly silence of the Bishops of Alberta, whose concern for the Sunday collection plate precedes any consideration of the worst ecological disaster in Canada – the Tar Sands. The spring runoff of water into the Athabasca waterways brings the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill every year, contaminating the earth and the water flowing north into the Arctic ocean. Along the way the people of the north are poisoned, and eventually all peoples of the world, as we are all connected by the water and air that gives life.

Their episcopal brothers in Peru, having spoken out, should worry about a bullet in the back or harassment by government agents. What do bishops in Alberta have to fear? A negative editorial in the Edmonton Journal? As the Hebrew Scriptures so clearly demonstrate, while true prophets emerge to announce and denounce, the King is always able to find eloquent court “prophets” who are willing to use their religious influence to defend injustice and domination, providing they are amply rewarded.


Phil Little

Open pit mining in SE Peru - Huaypetue gold mine


Invocation of the President of the Episcopal Conference and the Bishops of the Apostolic Vicariates of the Peruvian Amazon

Sisters and Brothers, as Pastors of the Catholic Church, we express our grave concern over the recent publication by the Executive Powers of the government in Decrees of Urgency N° 001-2011 and N° 002-2011, allowing extraordinary faculties under the power of the Constitution, through which special powers are given to facilitate the application of 33 projects of investment in our country. These decrees of urgency are framed to exonerate these investment projects from any obligation to conduct a study of the environmental impact as a requirement prior to receiving administrative authorization.
The Church, as Mother and Teacher, would never be against any effort that would presume to better the wellbeing of all Peruvians. However, it is our responsibility – as we have been reminded by our brothers of the Latin American and Caribbean episcopate in Aparecida – to care for our “common home”. The natural resources could be depleted and we would run the risk that what remains is misery, tears and desolation (Aparecida, 474).

The response we pronounce comes at the insistence of numerous faithful who insist that studies concerning the

Protesters in Bagua, Peru

environmental impact are necessary. This is a fundamental requirement for any activity of extraction or development, to expose the most serious consequences that irresponsible activity affecting the environment could have on the people and the diversity of the ecosystems.

In the past few years, as Pastors we have assisted different requests for mediation between the communities and the State, so that situations of violence could be avoided when there is a clash of social conflicts. In such situations, it is always the most poor who lose, whose situation of marginalization cries out.

We are aware that since December of last year, there are more than 200 areas of social conflict, a third of which concern the control of water supply and hydro resources. It is a great concern that these government decrees would seek to change the requirement compelling studies on the environmental impact into a non-obligatory administrative directive.

Water, air and the earth – these are essential elements of nature’s free gifts given to all generously by God. Social conflict can be anticipated and prevented if we respond in time. Development requires a respect of the earth and the people. (Populorum Progressio,20). Pope Benedict XVI in his New Year Message (January 1, 2010) instructed us “If we want peace, we must care for creation.” We are committed to this task.

Lima, 4 de febrero de 2011
(Signatures of the President of the Episcopal Conference of Peru, and the Bishops of the Apostolic Vicariates of the Peruvian Amazon region, gathered at the IV Indigenous Pastoral Conference)

Monseñor Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte, OFM., Arzobispo de Trujillo y Presidente de la Conferencia Episcopal Peruana
Monseñor Gerardo Zerdin O.F.M. Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de San Ramón
Monseñor Francisco González O.P. Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de Puerto Maldonado
Monseñor José Luis Astigarraga C.P. Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de Yurimaguas
Monseñor Santiago García de la Rasilla S.J. Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de Jaén
Monseñor Gaetano Gambusera S.D.B Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de Pucallpa
Monseñor Alberto Campos O.F.M Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de San José del Amazonas
Monseñor Juan Tomas Oliver, OFM Obispo del Vicariato Apostólico de Requena

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The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure

European theologians speak out

UPDATE 2/17/11: more theologians have signed on, it is now 232 from the three German speaking countries, and 254 including theologians from other countries.

It is over a year since cases of sexual abuse of children and youth by priests and religious at the Canisius School in Berlin were made public. Thereupon followed a year that plunged the Catholic Church in Germany into an unequaled crisis. Today, a split image is projected. Much has been undertaken to do justice to the victims, to come to terms with the wrong done, and to search out the causes of abuse, cover-up, and double standards within the Church’s own ranks. Many responsible Christians, women and men, in office and unofficially, have come to realize, after their initial disgust, that deep-reaching reforms are necessary. The appeal for an open dialogue on structures of power and communication, the form of official church offices, and the participation of the faithful in taking responsibility for morality and sexuality have aroused expectations, but also fears. This might be the last chance for departure from paralysis and resignation. Will this chance be missed by sitting out or minimizing the crisis? Not everyone is threatened by the unrest of an open dialogue without taboos – especially since the papal visit [to Germany] will soon take place. The alternative simply cannot be accepted: the “rest of the dead” because the last hopes have been destroyed.

The deep crisis of our Church demands that we address even those problems which, at first glance, do not have anything directly to do with the abuse scandal and its decades-long cover-up. As theology professors, women and men, we can keep silence no longer. We consider ourselves responsible for contributing to a true new beginning: 2011 must be a Year of Departure for the Church. In the past year, more Christians than ever before have withdrawn from the Catholic Church. They have officially terminated their legal membership, or they have privatized their spiritual life in order to protect it from the institution. The Church must understand these signs and pull itself from ossified structures in order to recover new vitality and credibility.

The renewal of church structures will succeed, not with anxious withdrawal from society, but only with the courage for self-criticism and the acceptance of critical impulses – including those from the outside. This is one of the lessons of the last year: the abuse crisis would not have been dealt with so decisively without the critical accompaniment of the larger public. Only through open communication can the Church win back trust. The Church will become credible when only its image of itself is not removed so far from the image others have of the Church. We turn to all those who have not yet given up hope for a new beginning in the Church and who work for this. We build upon the signals of departure and dialogue which some bishops have given in recent months in speeches, homilies, and interviews.

The Church does not exist for its own sake. The church has the mission to announce the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church can do this only when it is itself a place and a credible witness of the good news of the Gospel. The Church’s speaking and acting, its rules and structures – its entire engagement with people within and outside the Church – is under the standard of acknowledging and promoting the freedom of people as God’s creation. Absolute respect for every person, regard for freedom of conscience, commitment to justice and rights, solidarity with the poor and oppressed: these are the theological foundational standards which arise from the Church’s obligation to the Gospel. Through these, love of God and neighbor become tangible.

Finding our orientation in the biblical Good News implies a differentiated relationship to modern society. When it comes to acknowledgement of each person’s freedom, maturity, and responsibility, modern society surpasses the Church in many respects. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the Church can learn from this. In other respects, critique of modern society from the spirit of the Gospel is indispensable, as when people are judged only by their productivity, when mutual solidarity disintegrates, or when the dignity of the person is violated.

This holds true in every case: the Good News of the Gospel is the standard for a credible Church, for its action and its presence in society. The concrete demands which the Church must face are by no means new. And yet, we see hardly any trace of reform-oriented reforms. Open dialogue on these questions must take place in the following spheres of action.

1. Structures of Participation: In all areas of church life, participation of the faithful is a touchstone for the credibility of the Good News of the Gospel. According to the old legal principle “What applies to all should be decided by all,” more synodal structures are needed at all levels of the Church. The faithful should be involved in the naming of important officials (bishop, pastor). Whatever can be decided locally should be decided there. Decisions must be transparent.

2. Community: Christian communities should be places where people share spiritual and material goods with one another. But community life is eroding presently. Under the pressure of the priesthood shortage, larger and larger administrative entities (Size “Extra Large” Parishes) are constructed in which neighborliness and sense of belonging can hardly be experienced anymore. Historical identity and built-up social networks are given up. Priests are “overheated” and burn out. The faithful stay away when they are not trusted to share responsibility and to participate in democratic structures in the leadership of their communities. Church office must serve the life of communities – not the other way around. The Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry.

3. Legal culture: Acknowledgement of the dignity and freedom of every person is shown when conflicts are borne fairly and with mutual respect. Canon law deserves its name only when the faithful can truly make use of their rights. It is urgent that the protection of rights and legal culture be improved. A first step is the development of administrative justice in the Church.

4. Freedom of Conscience: Respect for individual conscience means placing trust in people’s ability to make decisions and carry responsibility. It is the task of the Church to support this capability. The Church must not revert to paternalism. Serious work needs to be done especially in the realm of personal life decisions and individual manners of life. The Church’s esteem for marriage and unmarried forms of life goes without saying. But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.

5. Reconciliation: Solidarity with “sinners” presupposes that we take seriously the sin within our own ranks. Self-justified moral rigorism ill befits the Church. The Church cannot preach reconciliation with God if it does not create by its own actions the conditions for reconciliation with those before whom the Church is guilty: by violence, by withholding rights, by turning the biblical Good News into a rigorous morality without mercy.

6. Worship: The liturgy lives from the active participation of all the faithful. Experiences and forms of expression of the present day must have their place. Worship services must not become frozen in traditionalism. Cultural diversity enriches liturgical life, but the tendency toward centralized uniformity is in tension with this. Only when the celebration of faith takes account of concrete life situations will the Church’s message reach people.

The already-begun dialogue process in the Church can lead to liberation and departure when all participants are ready to take up the pressing questions. We must lead the Church out of its crippling preoccupation with itself through a free and fair exchange of arguments and solutions. The tempest of the last year must not be followed by restful quietness! In the present situation, this could only be the “rest of the dead.” Anxiety has never been a good counselor in times of crisis. Female and male Christians are compelled by the Gospel to look to the future with courage, and walk on water like Peter as Jesus said to him, “Why do you have fear? Is your faith so weak?”

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