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From the Introduction:

Catholic children, given these teachings, did not at first know that there is no historical evidence for Peter being bishop anywhere—least of all at Rome, where the office of bishop did not exist in the first century CE—or that the linear “apostolic succession” is a chain of historical fabrications. What we were supposed to accept is that all priesthoods are invalid ones except the Roman Catholic. Even if we grant the Roman myths, and say that the Catholic priesthood is valid, how is it Christian to make that priesthood a means for excluding all Christians but Roman Catholics?

I shall be arguing here that priesthood, despite the many worthy men who have filled that office, keeps Catholics at a remove from other Christians—and at a remove from the Jesus of the Gospels, who was a biting critic of the priests of his day. To make this argument, I must consider the claim that has set priests apart from all other human beings, their unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. On this claim the entire sacramental structure of the medieval church was built up. The priesthood stands or falls with that claim. I mean to examine it here—dispassionately, thoroughly, historically. The outcome of this debate will determine the future (if any) of the priesthood.


A history lesson the whole church should be given!

Another Voice

I thought I would take advantage of “sede vacante”……there NOT being a pope……to reflect on facts and fantasies about the papacy.

Concerned about the Catholic Church and the survival of the papacy, one of my pen-pals has been sending emails, reminding people that “Our Blessed Lord picked Saint Peter to be the first pope and he will surely take care of the church today by selecting a new one.”

An American archbishop wrote in his diocesan paper a few days ago that “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.”

There are facts, for sure. There are a lot of fantasies as well.

Let’s start from the very beginning……..

Peter was a young married man, probably around twenty years old. Most likely he had children but we don’t know for certain. He must have been…

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“…biblical authors often used humor and the absurd to alert their readers that something very important is about to happen. The births of Isaac and Jesus were my two examples. The idea that either a woman in her nineties or a virgin can give birth is, I said, absurd, and the authors knew this to be so. They never expected their readers to take them literally. Rather they were saying, look these births herald the coming [of] something new into the world and hence break with the normative ways of producing offspring.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro,

We all love Thanksgiving dinner and all its trimmings – a beautiful family tradition that brings our families together and mends and heals and nurtures. Now, just a few weeks later we are immersed in the Christmas story and all its trimmings. And, once again, we prepare for family gatherings and for opportunities to renew and reclaim, to nest and remember. But what is it as Christians that we are called to remember? What is the Christian heart of our Christmas story?

Obviously, it’s not Christmas lights and fir trees; it’s not snow men or reindeer. It’s not Santa Claus or even Saint Nicholas – he came much later.

Is it the angels singing in the fields, and the shepherds? Is it wise men from the East and their gifts? Is it Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – that’s hardly festive? Okay, what about the stable and the ox and ass and manger? There has to be a manger because of the song, right? And everybody loves the scene of the angels and shepherd and the baby!

Everybody loves a story of a baby, especially one in which there is danger and pathos and heroism and compassion and beauty and a happy ending with angels singing and a star from heaven guiding a family to safety so a baby can be born under a starry sky….ahhhh! Cue the heavenly chorus. Then add the mysteries and treasures of the Orient and a baby lamb and some portentous dreams. What is not to like about this story? But we still haven’t gotten to the Christian heart of the story. We are still in the Christmas Story. And that is where Christmas stays for so many people it seems, and not just children.

In my experience, adult Christians who have become disenchanted with Christmas have become disenchanted with the Christmas Story not with the Christian Story. In fact they may not really know the Christian story. And here we get to Rabbi Rami’s point.  The Gospel writers, writing decades after Jesus’ death, were not historians of his life; they were not biographers. They were tellers of his Teaching, Death, and Resurrection – and only as an afterthought his birth, and only because, after all, he had to have had one.  In telling about his birth their main concern was to say that God was involved, and that from the very beginning the Jesus Event was a God Event. Not just from the moment of his baptism (Mark), not just from the moment of his announced conception (Matthew and Luke) but even from before the moment of creation (John).

The Gospel writers, when addressing the issue of Jesus’ birth, were giving us theology not biology.  They weren’t interested in eggs, sperm, uteruses – they didn’t know about such things. They weren’t interested in the human person as evil matter versus a good spirit, that idea was a Greek idea that didn’t have any influence on the Gospel writing, obviously, because Jesus clearly had a body in all the Gospel narratives.  The Gospel writers weren’t concerned about Original Sin either; Augustine would create that idea a few hundred years later.

The Gospel writers were telling us, using hyperbole and using Old Testament allusions, that the Jesus Event was a God Event, and that it had always been a God Event, since the beginning of Jesus’ life, or even since the beginning of all time. Moreover, the Jesus Event had been prefigured by many different stories in the Old Testament, showing that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah of Jewish expectation. For example, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew especially took great pains to connect his version of the Infancy Narrative, as it is called, to prophecies in the Old Testament. For example he connects the family’s trip to Egypt, and the ensuing slaughter of the innocents – two stories no other Gospel includes – to prophecies in Hosea and Jeremiah respectively. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish-Christian and in his use of Old Testament quotes and allusions he may simply be using a literary device to make his theological points: the Jesus Event was a God Event; Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.  The early Christians hadn’t gone any further than this in trying to figure out Jesus’ relationship to God yet, other than the basic language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The debate about the Trinity took nearly four hundred more years to settle (Council of Nicea 325, Chalcedon 451).

So what then is my point? If we are suffering from Christmas ennui, maybe it’s because we simply have lost sight of the Christian Story.  My solution? Let’s give ourselves the gift of a LITERARY GOSPEL CHRISTMAS. Let’s do some reading of the Gospel narratives with a footnoted Bible translation and/or scholarly commentary at hand and really attempt to understand the Christian Story beneath the Christmas story before we call Bah Humbug to it all!

It seems that I have fallen under the spell of magical thinking. Although clear about the nature of priestly ordination NOT making any kind of magical, ontological change in the persona of a priest, I apparently still harbored similar ideas about religious vows.

I have treated my brother James as if his capacity to bear the burdens of others was deeper and wider simply because he was a professed religious. It didn’t help that he was indeed more compassionate, gentle, patient and tender than most brothers, or Brothers. This in fact made it harder to recognise how we all in the family were taking advantage of him and expecting him to bear burdens beyond those of ordinary mortals or even ordinary friends or siblings.

The truth is he has borne those burdens, often juggling one parent’s or one sibling’s needs against another – often more than just one other in fact. And he has borne them alone. Unlike the rest of us – with husbands, wives, children, grandchildren – he has had no permanent presence in his life. No daily confidant or consoler. And he has lost many of his dearest friends in the last few years, reducing the number of support people in his life and increasing the pain and loss in his own relationships.

I have shared these reflections with my brother and our siblings, but I felt the topic was worthy of public comment also.

For those who are committed to going forward in the community of the Catholic faith it is vital that we reconsider our view of religious and priests, and most importantly our view of the vows that we have taken. Yes, all of us are under vows (solemn promises to perform an act, carry out an activity, or behave in a given way) taken for us by our parents at Infant Baptism, renewed by us at Confirmation, and reaffirmed by us every time we recite our creed and pray the Lord’s prayer. Implicit in these sacraments, faith statements and prayers is the promise to live by the beliefs expressed. We are not promising to support priests and religious as they live out their “calling,” we are acknowledging that we, too, are called, that we, too, are committing to live out this common calling, this shared vocation.

The Catholic faith community will not survive unless all Catholics accept their role, their burden, their joy of living a “vowed” life. The role of priests and religious should be seen as supporting us all in this life, not the other way around. This is a good time to reclaim  not the priesthood of the people but the people of the priesthood, or even better the people of Christ.

This excites me. This energizes me. How will this look?

Friday I was reading a T.S. Eliot poem on-line, Little Gidding, searching for a quote I  wanted, and when the words of a friend’s passing came to my ears the poem became  a prayer.


…With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I have always struggled to understand Eliot but have not, until today, tried to understand him with critical commentaries and scholarly insights. But Friday, when I lost Kitty, the words themselves were enough, speaking of endings and beginnings and oneness. And I thought about revelation and scripture and wondered why the poetry was more consoling than the psalm or the gospel verse. And I wondered: isn’t  God speaking in each and through each of these?

Writing that struggles to give voice to the mystery of life and death, give name to the Mystery of life and death, give meaning, give hope. Isn’t that what scripture is, what poetry is? And I asked: is there poetry in the rituals of our faith? Does God speak through those, or only patriarchy and pomposity?  When did we lose the poetry in our sacraments? Perhaps when we replaced poetry with prescription, inspiration with instruction, prophecy with pomposity, mysticism with Magisterium.

Today, even with the reading of a critical commentary, I find myself drawn to the depths of spirituality in Eliot: his struggle, his inspiration, his insight. He was a flawed man and didn’t lay claim to the Truth and yet in his images and allusions I find more Truth than in our doctrine. Once Truth is claimed, Truth is lost. The humility of the Christian poet is more illuminating than the arrogant protestations of the Catholic hierarch.

Friday, in the moment of loss, it was poetry that spoke to me of Hope, God, continuation, Oneness. And I feel no need to honor her further than with these words, in which Eliot references the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich:

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Like the presidency of George W, the sexual  morality teaching of the Catholic Church is a gift that keeps on giving…if you are a stand up comedian. Sometimes in the theology classroom it felt like doing stand-up. But it’s only funny for so long, then you have to cry or shout or join a protest, or leave the church.

The Catholic Church is pro-life. And in many ways this is a consistent and traditional (ages old) value, in general. But in specific terms it is tough to defend the church’s positions. Pro the unborn, life begins at conception. But not anti-war because of the right to defend our country in a just cause. Has anyone heard any debate about Just War theory recently?  It seems that any “conflict” is by definition just simply because we are involved with it.  Very lax moral guidance here from the church.

Catholics are pro-life and against abortion. So what about condoms is not to like? It avoids conception; it doesn’t abort a fertilized egg. And if you are HIV positive you should never consider putting your partner at risk by not wearing one. You should probably wear a whole wardrobe of rubber, not just a rubber “glove.” Because that is the loving, “life-affirming” thing to do. And we are pro-life. In the matter of protecting life, the gender of the sex partner or the profession of the sex partner is not the primary concern. Those are moral matters for another discussion. Sexual behavior that the church considers immoral – be it homosexual acts, oral sex, heterosexual anal intercourse, sex with prostitutes, these are all behaviors that need to be addressed separately if at all … yeah, sorry guys, the church doesn’t think those acts are “natural” because they are not open to creating life. But then neither is french-kissing and heavy petting. And mutual masturbation? Double no-no. Not even in marriage? Nope. I know — they need to get their heads out of our bedrooms and allow us to develop our sensual, sexual intimacy in ways that satisfy our marriage. They don’t need to be “sinning” good sex.  And yes, I do believe that if they were married they would develop a healthier sense of what good,loving sex is. But then again, I’m not sure that the Baptists have much broader ideas about sexual morality. Now, those Mormons might have something going on. I can see sharing the housework with a few other wives.  Ah, but here I am verging on stand-up again.

The issue of disease and the threat to life that Aids poses is a more pressing issue. Certainly no Catholic prelate should be expected to condone immoral sexual behavior, but neither should any prelate side-step the issue of life and death involved with unprotected sex with an HIV carrier. The pope has recently expressed a view that any rational thinking Catholic has accepted as appropriate years ago.

What is scary here is that all the vatican lackeys are trying to twist out of it. No, the pope hasn’t changed his mind about condom use. It is still immoral. Umm, actually he has changed from the official Catholic position guys, and it’s about time. He has made a distinction between contra-ception and contra-death. He points out that if it is about avoiding death then yes, condom use is reasonable. This doesn’t condone the sexual acts or the sexual immoralities  but it does suggest for the first time a common sense attitude in the issue of condom use.

Catholic adults have for decades believed that protecting sex from conception could be a moral good in some cases, disease is one such case, but avoiding dangerous pregnancies is another. As is avoiding the stress on the woman physically, on the marital relationship, and on the family when children’s numbers are unlimited. Catholic adults have been making difficult decisions about contraception for decades. The sad thing is that they were never officially offered the support and spiritual guidance they needed to make these decisions. Instead they heard that their decisions were immoral and could be enough to result in exclusion from the sacraments. In other words, decisions made responsibly in good faith, with input from the bible, church teaching, and prayer wasn’t affirmed unless it agreed with the official teaching of the unmarried, celibate(?) male clerics who tell us how to manage our sexuality.

Did you hear the story about the priest who got a woman pregnant but refused to pay for the upkeep of the child, even encouraging an abortion. When asked why he didn’t use a condom he answered, “But that would have gone against Catholic teaching.”  When is not wearing a rubber glove more morally imperative than helping to raise a child? How out of proportion our pre-occupation with rubber and pills has become. We should return to the main issues: love, life, family, self-control, self-respect, self-sacrifice. And on a practical level: if you are going to sin, sin responsibly. Don’t create more chaos and stress by having a child out of marriage, don’t create more disease and death by passing on HIV. But if you do screw up…do the next best thing. Care for the child or consider adoption, care for your partner and take on some of the burden of his/her health issues.

Final word: Any Catholic who doesn’t take responsibility for rational and moral decision-making in their own lives is not yet an adult in their faith. Any Catholic who is waiting for permission from the Pope to wear a condom to avoid an unwanted disease or an unplanned pregnancy is not yet an adult in their faith.

So…grow up why don’t you. Pray, reflect, seek advice, read the scriptures, read the Catechism and make your own best decision. Then don’t blame the pope for it. He’s a ways behind us yet. 

(And if you are an unmarried teenager, no, I am not giving you permission to go out and have sex as long as you use protection. I know you want to hear that, but it is not what I am saying. Read the bit about prayer, bible, reflection, catechism, spiritual guidance and responsible decisions. Look up the meaning of love, marriage, self-respect, commitment, and reflect on the demands of self-sacrifice that a committed relationship places on you when one’s partner gets sick, gets pregnant, gets dead.)  — once a high school religion teacher, always…

I came across an excellent summary that traces key developments in Catholic theology since Vatican II.  “Lessons from an Extraordinary Era,”  Roger Haight.

What I find ironic yet tremendously hopeful is that the author– himself currently denied permission to teach anywhere as a theologian because of his book Jesus, Symbol of God — reminds us that two progressive theologians who were silenced prior to Vatican II rose to become leaders in the revival of Catholic theology at Vatican II and later were made cardinals.  This historical fact clearly illustrates the intrinsically organic nature of Catholic doctrine.  Although the Vatican is committed to the concept of the absolute and unchanging nature of Catholic Doctrine, in practice — and I thank God for it — our theology does grow and change.

Organic substances breathe and change, they respond to environmental stimuli, with the right conditions they can grow and multiply or transform; with a lack of good conditions they can become rotten and smelly.  Think about cranberries in your refrigerator. When they are fresh they are delightful, not too sweet, a challenge to the taste buds. As they age they can become (in my fridge anyway) moldy and fuzzy and completely unpalatable, maybe even intestinally dangerous. But if we take them out before they mold, and dry them in a fruit dehydrator, then they take on a whole new life and can be mixed with lots of other foods and add new flavor and texture to cereal and cakes and make great jams. Ok, I am obviously hungry but I think the analogy has potential. Some of our doctrines have been left out too long and are old and smelly and even dangerous to the ongoing health of our church.

If you are interested in the debate about Roger  Haight’s  Christology (theology of  Jesus) this is a good assessment of the issues:

“The Vatican’s Quarrel with Roger Haight.”

Magical thinking; magical theology.  To believe that certain words recited in a certain order for a certain number of repetitions can change reality? Is this magical thinking? There is a movie about an urban legend based on the idea that saying a name three times in front of a mirror has the power to conjure up an evil spirit and give him access to our world. We laugh at the notion, and nervously cower in our seats. What if? What if what? What if all the laws of the physical universe could be suspended by reciting words?  Hollywood!

But then you go into a church and find prayer cards with the words, “never known to fail” on them, exhorting the faithful to repeat the Prayer to the Virgin Mary or St. Anthony …
” This prayer must be said for 3 consecutive days and after
that the request will be granted and the prayer must be published.

I am not a theologian but I spent 27 years as a Catholic religious educator. I find myself today more in sympathy with the “progressive” Catholic movement and have taken myself out of religious education because I want to remain honest. The classroom of a Catholic school (Rome would say a Catholic college too) is not the appropriate venue for a teacher to air her questions about Catholic teaching or authority. My job was to help nurture faith not foment confusion and dissent. That being said, in my classroom I encouraged critical thinking and challenged magical thinking.

I believe that while faith is a personal relationship with God, religion is a human construct and should be expected to make rational sense. The history, scriptures and doctrines of a religion should be open to honest historical-critical examination. Failures should be acknowledged, not edited out of history.

Changes in Catholic doctrine  show how Catholic Christianity responds to its historical context and the needs of its members. The fact that the Church is open to change is a good thing, I think. Unfortunately, in the current theological climate, admitting that doctrine changes is seen as admitting weakness and conceding to the relativism that is  blamed for much of the moral malaise of our times.

This fear of acknowledging change has led high school  textbook authors and college instructors to teach that “Catholic Doctrine Does Not Change.” We have forgotten Aquinas, who had the very good sense to distinguish between human (finite, changeable, relative) truth, and divine (eternal, absolute and immutable) truth. Is the problem that Rome cannot accept that its (our) truth is human? But how can it be anything else? Even if we believe that God guides and inspires the Church, we have to acknowledge that the interpretation, definition, and transmission of God’s truth and inspiration can only ever be inadequate, because it can only ever be generated in human language and within a specific historical context.

And then there’s John Henry Cardinal Newman, who wrote a famous (infamous?) Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I have read and re-read parts (it is not an easy read but worth the effort) and am surprised to learn that it is considered anything other than quite conservative. Apparently, the fact that he argues that development of doctrine is natural, and even necessary, is enough for his orthodoxy to be questioned. But Newman does not see development of doctrine as undermining the concept of God’s Absolute Truth or of the infallibility of the Church. Whatever issues progressive Catholics have with the notion of  infallibility, Newman accepted it without question.

A copy of the essay is available online here: But a brief quote will be enough to illustrate his essentially simple reasoning.

Chapter 2, Section I, Paragraph 12

Moreover, while it is certain that developments of Revelation proceeded all through the Old Dispensation down to the very end of our Lord’s ministry, on the other hand, if we turn our attention to the beginnings of Apostolical teaching after His ascension, we shall find ourselves unable to fix an historical point at which the growth of doctrine ceased, and the rule of faith was once for all settled. Not on the day of Pentecost, for St. Peter had still to learn at Joppa that he was to baptize Cornelius; not at Joppa and Cæsarea, for St. Paul had to write his Epistles; not on the death of the last Apostle, for St. Ignatius had to establish the doctrine of Episcopacy; not then, nor for centuries after, for the Canon of the New Testament was still undetermined. Not in the Creed, which is no collection of definitions, but a summary of certain credenda, an incomplete summary, and, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Decalogue, a mere sample of divine truths, especially of the more elementary. No one doctrine can be named which starts complete at first, and gains nothing afterwards from the investigations of faith and the attacks of heresy. The Church went forth from the old world in haste, as the Israelites from Egypt “with their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.”

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