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May 24, 2009

Church and society: Does real faith allow room for real dialogue? - Recession closes doors for migrants and refugees - The struggles parishes face - The divided people of a polarized era.

In this edition:
1. The class of 2009, the shadow of 9-11 and a people divided.
2. Does real faith allow room for real dialogue?
3. The foot washers needed when tensions divide.
4. Polarization steps forward, front and center.
5. Current quotes to ponder: a) Pastoral strategy toward young people. b) The struggling parishes of these times.
6. Global recession closes doors to migrants and refugees.
7. Pope calls interreligious dialogue requirement of faith.

1. The Class of 2009, the Shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, and a People Divided

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted in his commencement address to the 2009 graduates of Jesuit-run Boston College that they were the fifth graduating class to have spent its entire college experience under the pall of Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, in the years since the tragic events of that day, Americans have become a greatly divided people, Burns noted. It will not be possible for the graduates to ignore the challenge posed by those divisions, he suggested.

Burns, a documentary filmmaker, is known for his highly rated nine-part "The Civil War," broadcast by public television. His 2007 World War II chronicle "The War" won three Emmy awards.

At Boston College Burns turned for inspiration to history and especially the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Today "we find ourselves in the midst of a new, subtler, perhaps more dangerous civil war than Abraham Lincoln faced -- where the rules have changed, and they don't always favor the truthful and the virtuous," said Burns.

First, he said, the reaction to Sept. 11, 2001, whose immediate aftermath yielded so much unity and renewal of national purpose, now ironically has "metastasized into an angrier, more divided nation where we continually emphasize what differentiates ourselves from the other, rather than what we share in common; where suspicion rather than trust is inculcated in us all; where we retreat behind false ramparts of mindless consumerism to ward off a stultifying loneliness brought on by that very same retreat from each other."

Second, new technologies ironically have helped "propel us to this moment," Burns said. For, technologies are "magnifying the division and loneliness at the center of our national and individual life." Explaining his point, Burns told the graduates that when everything people do "is done apart," they forget their connection to each other and the world.

In a third of his observations, Burns pointed out that "now we are beset by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression," which, among other problems, reveals "a stunningly bankrupt soul at the heart of many of our most trusted institutions."

Burns told the graduates they are going to find themselves drafted "into a new Union Army that must be committed to preserving the values, the sense of humor, the sense of cohesion that have long been our hallmark and beacon."

In this, he counseled the graduates, they will have "no choice." He said their difficult and challenging responsibility is to "help clean up this mess" and actually "to change the world."

2. Does Real Faith Leave Room for Real Dialogue? Church and Society

"Let us be a society in which we genuinely listen to each other," Archbishop Vincent Nichols pleaded May 21 during his installation as new archbishop of Westminster, England. He insisted that faith never is private and always has a public dimension.

The new archbishop of Westminster, serving most of London, called for a society "in which sincere disagreement is not made out to be insult or harassment, in which reasoned principles are not construed as prejudice and in which we are prepared to attribute to each other the best and not the worst of motives." He added: "In these matters, we ourselves in the churches have so much to learn and do. Yet we also have much to contribute."

If faith is never simply private, it also is never "a solitary activity," Archbishop Nichols said. "Faith in Christ always draws us into a community," and the very nature of this community expands the vision people have for themselves, he explained. That is because "this community of faith reaches beyond ethnicity, cultural difference and social division," thus opening "for us a vision of ourselves and of our society as having a single source and a single fulfillment."

In addition to building community, faith "expresses itself in action," the archbishop said. If society is "to build on this gift of faith, we must respect its outward expression not only in honoring individual conscience but also in respecting the institutional integrity of the communities of faith in what they bring to public service and to the common good."

How does faith interact with society at large and make a contribution in the public square? Archbishop Nichols recalled the experience of St. Paul in the Areopagus. "At the heart of Paul's effort in Athens was an appeal to reason. He did not seek to impose his beliefs, nor exploit anxiety or fear. Rather he had learned that his faith in Christ was compatible with the mind's capacity for reasoned thought. Indeed it complemented it," Archbishop Nichols said.

Today, some people "propose that faith and reason are crudely opposed, with the fervor of faith replacing good reason," said the archbishop. But he cautioned that "this reduction of both faith and reason inhibits not only our search for truth but also the possibility of real dialogue."

Real dialogue, the archbishop added, "needs to go beyond the superficial and the slogans." He said, "Respectful dialogue is crucial today, and I salute all who seek to engage in it."

In his homily Archbishop Nichols also described the power of faith to expand the mind and the spirit. He said:

"Faith in God is not, as some would portray it today, a narrowing of the human mind or spirit. It is precisely the opposite. Faith in God is the gift that takes us beyond our limited self, with all its incessant demands. It opens us to a life that stretches us, enlightens us and often springs surprises upon us."

3. Foot Washers Needed When Tensions Divide

The tensions in the church and the world only will be resolved when people consider themselves called to wash each other's feet, Oblate Father Ronald Rolheiser, a noted columnist and author, told the annual assembly of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, held at the end of April in San Antonio, Texas.

Father Rolheiser said the tensions witnessed today only will be resolved "if pro-life can wash pro-choice's feet and pro-choice wash pro-life's feet; if immigrant can wash anti-immigrants' feet and vice versa; if Dick Cheney can wash Osama bin Laden's feet and vice versa. Common ground is found in humility and a willingness to serve; common ground is always higher ground."

Examining what it means to be "catholic," Father Rolheiser said that "'catholic' is a mark of our faith - universality, wide, radiating God's universal salvific will." This mark of faith pulls people of faith beyond the liberal and the conservative, beyond the selective inclusivity and compassion of both the left and the right, he said.

On this point Father Rolheiser quoted the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a social-justice network of churches and faith-based organizations. Wallis once advised, "Don't go to the right; don't go to the left; go deeper!"

Among the tensions that appear to divide people of faith, Father Rolheiser cited not only the conservative and liberal, but the tension that arises when private morality and social justice are played off against each other, or when the Christ who became one with us is contrasted with the triumphant Christ, or when the church's missionary call or its prophetic nature is contrasted with the work of maintaining and supporting the church's institutional dimension.

But Father Rolheiser said the church is expansive enough to hold such tensions - "large enough and inclusive enough to hold all of these and allow them to coexist, but never to diminish the dignity and respect due to the other."

4. Polarization Steps Forward

The reality of polarization within the Catholic Church in the U.S. seemed to step front and center after President Obama was invited to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame in mid-May. It was division, for the most part, centered on the issue of abortion.

I assume the details of the divisions and controversy that surrounded the university's invitation to President Obama are well enough known that I do not need to sum them up here. In the main, what seemed to divide Catholics was not the morality of abortion per se, but how to approach the matter in a pluralistic society.

In the days after Notre Dame's May 17 commencement, some wondered what comes next for the church in America on abortion. Divisions seemed to intensify over approaches to the abortion issue, including the degree to which true dialogue is possible on the various aspects of the issue. Some insisted that dialogue risks unacceptable compromises.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said two days after the Notre Dame commencement that questions surrounding President Obama's appearance there were never about whether he is a good or bad man. The archbishop said: "The president is clearly a sincere and able man. By his own words religion has had a major influence in his life. We owe him the respect Scripture calls us to show all public officials. We have a duty to pray for his wisdom and for the success of his service to the common good - insofar as it is guided by right moral reasoning."

But, Archbishop Chaput continued, "we also have the duty to oppose him when he's wrong on foundational issues like abortion, embryonic stem cell research and similar matters. And we also have the duty to avoid prostituting our Catholic identity by appeals to phony dialogue that mask an abdication of our moral witness."

One speaker at Notre Dame's commencement May 17 was Judge John Noonan of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A former recipient of the university's Laetare Medal, he was invited to speak after Harvard University's Mary Ann Glendon, who had been named to receive the university's medal this year, declined in light of the honorary degree that would be awarded to President Obama.

Noonan analyzed the meaning of conscience, how people differ in their judgments of conscience and ways to approach and work with people whose conscience differs from one's own. He encouraged people to look to the example of U.S. history and what it suggests about how to resolve great social divisions over major issues.

Some who commented on the commencement seemed to find Noonan's speech particularly significant. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., urged close attention to Noonan's remarks, saying that they made "a lot more sense than 90 percent of the rhetoric in the last few weeks."

Noonan referred in his remarks to Glendon's absence, saying: "One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same; that we can recognize great goodness in our nation's president without defending all of his multitudinous decisions; and that we can rejoice on this wholly happy occasion."

Two reasons for those present to rejoice, said Noonan, are that they "live in a country where dialogue, however difficult, is doable" and "where the resolution of our differences is done in peaceful ways."

Noonan noted that for half a century a "great debate has gone on in this country" over matters related to abortion. He said; "The matter of this debate was too serious to be settled by pollsters and pundits; too delicate to be decided by physical force or by banners and slogans, pickets and placards; too basic for settlement to be based on a vote by judges."

All of this "was settled -- so it seemed -- 36-six years ago" with the U.S. Supreme Court's "Roe vs. Wade" abortion decision, said Noonan. But he immediately added: "The settlement was still-born. Debate intensified. Debate is not now about to close. At its center are the claims of conflicting consciences."

What is conscience and why is it an issue? Noonan said: "More than the voice of your mother, more than an emotional impulse, this mysterious, impalpable, imprescriptible, indestructible and indispensable guide governs our moral life. Each one is different. You may suggest what my conscience should say, but you cannot tell me what my conscience must say."

Earlier in his remarks Noonan urged attention to what history reveals about resolving great issues. He said: "Some things we have in common. Some things all of us know are wrong. Genocide is wrong. Torture is wrong. Slavery is wrong. In these matters our moral vision is clear. Our moral vision has had a voice to vindicate those unable to speak. Our moral vision is shared by the civilized world. It was not so always."

Noonan said that within society "the clarity of our moral vision has come out of clashes. It has come by experience, by suffering, by strenuous debate. It has come from the insight and courage of gifted leaders. It has come from the light radiating from the Gospel."

True, he suggested, "the hesitations, the doubts, the qualifications, the outright opposition of others delayed the day of victory for each of the great moral causes where the truth ultimately prevailed. The champions of the cause were frustrated -- frustrated most of all by those who should have been their friends."

People who firmly believe their own "moral vision is clear and the other fellow's is cloudy" become impatient - become even "more frustrated -- if the other fellow is a friend, an old friend or a potential friend," Noonan remarked. However, "to satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation."

Hurting one's friends will not help one's cause, Noonan suggested. He said, "What does work is prayer, patience, empathy and the love that encircles the other person, a fellow creature attempting to do what he or she sees as right."

5. Current Quotes to Ponder

Pastoral Strategy Toward Young People: "We want to make sure that we give greater attention to our youth and young adults in our parishes, schools, colleges and universities. They are not the future of the church; they are the young church of today. We intend to spend more time and provide opportunities for them to grow in their faith and to find their place in the parish community. Some parishes do this very well; others are looking for more opportunities to involve and include our youth and young adults in parish life. For example, one of the suggestions that we will make to the local parishes is to make sure that the youth and young adults are represented on the pastoral council." (Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, discussing one of the five current pastoral strategies for parishes of the diocese with The Catholic Spirit newspaper of Austin)

The Struggling Parishes of These Times: "Parish life today struggles mightily. More parishes are without pastors. Some share pastors. Some have closed because of changing demographics and limited resources. Some barely make it financially. Most serve parishioners from multiple cultures who speak multiple languages. Pastors and pastoral staffs struggle as well. Some lack skills needed to administer, or to lead, or to collaborate. Some pastors find the sacramental demands of parish life overwhelming, leaving little time for pastoral initiatives to respond to new and pressing pastoral needs. Parishes need help. Pastors and pastoral ministers need resources. I visit vibrant parish communities in all parts of our diocese. I admire their tireless efforts to meet the varied spiritual needs of their people. They do fabulous ministry under difficult circumstances. Their pastors never seem to rest. Their staffs work well and work together. Yet when I talk with priests, religious, deacons and lay people involved in parish ministry in our diocese, they express many concerns: 'People are not coming to church regularly.' 'Our youth seem lost, indifferent to faith. We worry about them.' 'We need to hand on the faith to the next generation.' 'Families need help. Marriages are under duress. Why can't the parish help more?' 'Where are the young adults?' 'Our adults know little about their faith.' 'Why can't our parishes provide more spiritual guidance?' 'People are going to different faith communities.' Parishes and dioceses today face the challenges of providing even adequate resources to their priests and parish ministers; of developing creative pastoral initiatives; of responding effectively to the wide range of complex concerns that parish staffs face." (Excerpts from "Keep Going," by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., in the spring 2009 edition of Church magazine, published by the National Pastoral Life Center)

6. Recession Closes Doors in the Faces of Migrants and Refugees

"As the world sinks deeper into economic recession, borders are closing, jobs are disappearing and life is becoming harder for refugees and migrants everywhere," said Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization of Catholic charities groups.

Speaking in Rome May 20, Knight said migrants and refugees tend to be the first to lose their jobs in times of economic downturn "not only because their status is called into question, but also because they are employed in sectors particularly affected by the economic crisis." As other people "become fearful for their own futures, the stranger becomes the target of anger and resentment," she said.

The negative effects of the current global recession powerfully affect migrants and refugees, Knight explained. Low-wage jobs are disappearing and resentment of foreigners is growing, she said. Her comments were reported May 21 by Catholic News Service.

Knight spoke at the opening of an exhibition featuring photographs of refugees titled "Respecting Strangers: Replacing Fear With Welcome." She said the photo exhibit visually narrates stories of courage in the face of hardship, but if it had a soundtrack, unfortunately it would consist of "the sound of doors slamming shut."

7. Pope Calls Interreligious Dialogue Requirement of Faith

"This land is indeed a fertile ground for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and I pray that the rich variety of religious witness in the region will bear fruit in a growing mutual understanding and respect," Pope Benedict XVI said May 15 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as he prepared to return to Rome after an eight-day visit to the Holy Land.

Later, in an in-flight statement while enroute to Rome, the pope reflected on his Holy Land visit. "I found everywhere, in every context -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish -- a determined readiness for interreligious dialogue, for encounter and collaboration among the religions," Pope Benedict said. He called it important that this dialogue, encounter and collaboration be seen by everyone not only as an action "inspired by political motives in the given situation, but as a fruit of the very core of faith."

This encounter between the religions flows from belief itself, Pope Benedict indicated. He said: "Believing in one God who has created us all, the Father of us all, believing in this God who created humanity as a family, believing that God is love and wants love to be the dominant force in the world implies this encounter, this need for an encounter, for dialogue, for collaboration as a requirement of faith itself."

During the airport departure ceremony in Tel Aviv, attended by Israeli President Shimon Peres and other government leaders, the pope assured the Israeli people of his friendship. His remarks on friendship came at the end of a visit that received a lukewarm reaction in the Israeli media, but praise in the Palestinian press.

"I came to visit this country as a friend of the Israelis, just as I am a friend of the Palestinian people. Friends enjoy spending time in one another's company, and they find it deeply distressing to see one another suffer," Pope Benedict said, adding: "No friend of the Israelis and the Palestinians can fail to be saddened by the continuing tension between your two peoples. No friend can fail to weep at the suffering and loss of life that both peoples have endured over the last six decades."

The pope made the following appeal to all the people of the Holy Land: "No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war! Instead let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing. Let it be universally recognized that the state of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream. And let peace spread outward from these lands, let them serve as a 'light to the nations.'"

Aboard his flight to Rome, Pope Benedict acknowledged that "enormous difficulties" face those hoping for peace in the Holy Land. But he said that in the Holy Land he saw "a deep desire for peace on the part of all." The problems, he said, "are more visible, and we must not conceal them: They exist and need clarification." What is not so visible, the pope added, is "the common desire for peace, for brotherhood." He said, "It seems to me that we should also talk about this and encourage in everyone the desire to find solutions to these problems that are certainly far from simple."