Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI, St. Benedict, and Me

On 19 April 2005 I was sitting in the Huether Hotel Café in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada studying for the comprehensive exams associated with my doctoral program at McMaster University.  The Huether was my regular haunt those days.  I would spend hours and hours each day there reading and drinking coffee.

The Huether had two televisions, both of which played the news, and both of which were muted.

On the afternoon of 19 April 2005, I happened to glance up from whatever book I was reading - I'm pretty sure I was reading Augustine's De Trinitate - to see on the television billows of white smoke emerging from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.

I was only two when John Paul II was elected, so I of course remember nothing.  What I was witnessing in 2005, therefore, was my first papal election.

And I was riveted.  There was such drama with the smoke, the cardinal announcing the words, "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum... habemus papam!" - "I announce to you a great joy... we have a pope!", and the new pope being introduced to the crowd.

I still enjoy re-watching the whole process:

At the time I was not a Roman Catholic, at least not formally.  I was an Anglican in theological crisis.  I loved my church, but had realized that theologically, ecclesiologically, and sacramentally I was a Roman Catholic.  As I watched Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger get elected and emerge onto the balcony of St. Peter's as Pope Benedict XVI, I felt a longing that I can't explain to become fully what I was already in my heart.

I was received into the Roman church two years later, and took "Benedict" as my confirmation name, as a nod to both St. Benedict of Nursia and to the man who was be pope when I became a Roman Catholic.

It was, therefore, a moving experience for me to see a much-aged pope leave the Vatican today:

Almost eight years later, the see of Peter is vacant, and while the Pope-emeritus is not dead I feel a sense of mourning this evening.  Pope Benedict XVI was not perfect.  It would appear that he had shortcomings as an administrator.  Moreover, there are facets of his thought with which I humbly disagree.  But he was and is a theologian and scholar whom I respect deeply, a  man of profound depth.  His writings as pope, and particularly his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, demonstrate his depth clearly.  But his resignation demonstrated to me a tremendous humility that underlines what appears to be depth of spirituality.

So now, we wait...

Monday, February 25, 2013

John Henry Cardinal Newman on University Education

Last week the Cardinal Newman Society listed the university at which I teach as one of the ‘dirty dozen’ Catholic universities in the United States that host performances of the Vagina Monologues.  The Cardinal Newman Society understands itself to 'promote and defend faithful Catholic education.'  In addition to promoting colleges that fit within the society's confines of 'faithful Catholic education,' the Cardinal Newman Society also understands itself to be a watchdog of Catholic colleges that protests and fights against anything on a Catholic college campus that it understands to be opposed to Catholic truth.  The society appears to focus much of its attention specifically on issues of sexuality; at least it is on such issues that it is the loudest.  Hence its protest against the Vagina Monologues, against which the Cardinal Newman Society has vigorously campaigned since 2004.

My purpose in this brief post isn’t to speak for or against the Cardinal Newman Society, nor is it to speak for or against the society's protestations against the Vagina Monologues.  I want, rather, to write about Blessed John Henry Newman himself, after which the society is named (he was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI), and specifically about my reading of Newman on higher education.

I have more than a passing fascination with Blessed Newman.  My own vocation as a theologian and teacher, and my identity as a Roman Catholic have been profoundly shaped by him.  I’ve read many of his writings, and I recently traveled to England to stay where he lived, to study in his library, to pray where he prayed. The picture below is of me re-reading Newman's Apologia ten feet away from the desk on which he wrote the Apologia.

Re-reading the Apologia in Newman's library
In short, I’m really into the guy. 

My worry, however, is that John Henry Newman gets easily dismissed as a theologian by those who perhaps disagree, to greater or lesser extents, with the Cardinal Newman Society's understanding of Catholic identity, and who perhaps think that this understanding derives from Newman himself.  Yes, the Cardinal Newman Society is named after Blessed Newman.  Yes, if you go to the society’s website you’ll see pictures of Newman.  (You won't, interestingly enough, find much about Newman on their site, at least, not easily).  But allow me to tell you a bit about who Newman was and about what he wrote, specifically about the purpose of a Roman Catholic university education.  I am not, it should be stated at the outset, a Newman scholar.  Others with more expertise than I have written about Newman on education.  Moreover, it cannot be denied that Newman was a very complex figure indeed, as witnessed by the fact that both 'liberal' and 'conservative' Catholics can and do claim him as their own.  I don't self-identify with either camp, nor do I claim to have a full purchase on Newman's thought.  Rather, I have read and continue to re-read Newman as a seeker and as one whose own life has been shaped by his thought.  I certainly welcome friendly constructive criticism if my reading of Newman is deficient.

John Henry Cardinal Newman lived from 1801-1890 and was an influential English Roman Catholic theologian.  Educated at the University of Oxford, he earned his B.A. from Trinity College, was eventually made a fellow and tutor at Oriel College, and was shortly thereafter ordained as a priest in the Church of England (the Episcopalian church here in the USA).  He devoted much of his time at Oxford to research and study, and was a popular preacher.  During this period Newman became enamored by early Christian thought and practice, and his study began profoundly to inform his theology and his understanding of what the church should look like in thought and practice.  This study led him to something of a crisis of faith, as he came to understand his theology and spirituality to be much more akin to the Roman Catholic Church than to the Church of England, and in 1845 Newman was received into the Roman Catholic faith.

He was soon ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and founded a community of priests and lay-brothers in Birmingham, England.  Newman continued to preach and to write.  His most famous work remains his Apologia pro vita sua (published 1864), his autobiography in which he describes and defends his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, but he wrote many other works.  One of these works ended up shaping our understanding of Roman Catholic higher education – The Idea of a University.

In 1852 Newman gave a series of lectures on the meaning and purpose of Catholic higher education, and he published these lectures as a book entitled The Idea of a University.  This book remains an important treatise on the importance of a liberal arts education, and is rightly considered a classic of Christian thought.  Put simply, Newman argues that a university education should not simply be about getting a job.  Education, rather, is about the transformative cultivation of the mind.  Newman emphasizes that all knowledge forms one whole, and it is only by studying different areas of knowledge that one can come to a better comprehension of the interrelationship between these areas.  And it is also only through this kind of study that one learns how to think.  A narrowly vocational education cannot do this.  But a liberal arts education shapes the entire person.  While Newman writes that such an education is a good in itself quite apart from whether it leads to a job or not, he also suggests that a liberal arts education actually equips students intellectually and morally to delve into any task or job effectively.  Such an education develops people with the ability to think critically and thoughtfully.  In short, a liberal arts education transforms students for the better.

Newman insisted that a liberal arts education must include the study of theology for it truly to be a universal education.  Interestingly, however, far from being a watchdog who scrutinized the thoughts of others to ensure absolute theological conformity, Newman often found himself in trouble with the church’s hierarchy, and more than once various people accused him of being a heretic and took their complaints straight to the Vatican.  He had many enemies in the church, including enemies in Rome, and it was 1879 before his genius was recognized by Pope Leo XIII who made him a cardinal.

Newman was someone who often pushed boundaries, who emphasized the preeminence of conscience, and who was not shy to speak up when he disagreed with the leaders of the church, though he did so humbly and usually with charity.  He understood that a well-formed conscience was paramount, which was why I think he understood a liberal arts education to be so important.  To form the conscience requires careful study and the development of critical thought.  He did not understand education to be about being told the truth and then being told to conform to it.  He understood education, rather, to be about cultivating a love for truth and searching for it together in conversation with multiple academic disciplines.  This included for him transformational conversation with, but not slavish adherence to, the theological traditions of the church.  There is within the church room for divergent opinion and expression.  Newman would have fully embraced Pope Pius XII's statement that “The church is a living body, and it would lack an element of its life if the free expression of opinion was lacking.”  Education, to borrow Newman's motto from his cardinal coat-of-arms, is about 'heart speaking unto heart.'

The founding president of my university was very much influenced by the educational principles articulated in The Idea of a University, and the influence of Newman continues to be found in the university's mission statement.  It was because of Newman’s influence on his own ideas that our founding president named a residence hall after Newman, and the permanent place of Newman on our campus should continue to remind us of the meaning and purpose of a university education, one structured primarily upon cultivating a love of truth.  It should also remind us of who Newman really was – not a watchdog on the hunt for heresy, but a complex and nuanced thinker and seeker of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Book Recommendations

Some books by Newman, that are particular favourites of mine:


Some books  on Newman that I have found valuable:


If you're looking for a brief and accessible book on the life and thoughts of Newman, check out the official biography written for Newman's beatification in 2010:


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI: Neither Conservative nor Progressive

When news broke of the pope's resignation last Monday, I wrote a quick blog post about what I understood to be Pope Benedict XVI's complexity.  My hope was simply to point to the possibility that the labels we generally use in political and ecclesial circles - progressive vs. conservative - don't necessarily apply to the pope, a profound theological mind whose thought transcends such easy classification.

I was therefore very interested when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion & Ethics web-page ran an essay by Adrian Pabst, lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, called "Neither Progressive nor Conservative: The Romanticism of Benedict XVI" (the full essay can be found here).  I highly recommend you read his full essay, but I will broadly summarize his argument (as I see it).

Pabst begins the essay by recounting the criticism Benedict received throughout his papacy from both progressives and conservatives.  Progressives, here Pabst points to Hans Küng, have accused Benedict of 'restoring a reactionary vision of Catholicism that betrays the progressive reforms' of Vatican II.  Conservatives, for their part, have argued that Benedict does not take enough of a stand on theological and political-economic questions.

Benedict has enemies in both camps because, according to Pabst, his vision of the authentic Catholic Christian tradition stands in sharp contrast to the visions put forward by both conservatives and progressives.  Indeed, Pabst argues that the differences between conservatives and liberals do not conceal the level to which both share common assumptions theologically, philosophically, politically, and economically. 

Both conservatives and progressives put forward a 'distinctly modern, secular vision' based on the divorce of natural immanence from supernatural transcendence, a separation of faith from reason, and the primacy of nations and peoples over the universal communion of the church.  Benedict, on the other hand, steeped in patristic and medieval theology, particularly as developed by German Romantics and the nouvelle theologie (de Lubac, etc.), puts forward a vision of modernity sharply at odds with the visions put forward by liberals and conservatives:
At the heart of [Benedict's] vision lies an attempt to outline an alternative modernity - one that overcomes the modern division between human artifice and unalterable nature. So, instead of viewing [hu]man[ity] as the measure of all things, Benedict develops the tradition of integral humanism and an organic unity of [hu]mankind with the cosmos and God. Likewise, rather than the social contract that is imposed on the violent "state of nature," the Pope calls for new covenant that corrects human sinfulness, protects the dignity of the person and promotes human flourishing.
As such, Benedict has always opposed in equal measure both the liberal attempt to render formal rights equally normative with substantive goods, and the neo-scholastic project of universalising American exceptionalism. In a sense, then, liberals and conservatives oppose the Pope precisely because he is not modern enough.
What both liberals and conservatives fail to understand is the 'long, intellectual tradition which Benedict XVI has sought to preserve and extend':
a Romantic orthodoxy that eschews much of the modern Reformation and Counter-Reformation in favour of the patristic and medieval legacy shared by Christians in East and West. This legacy extends from the teachings on the Church Fathers and Doctors like St Augustine, Dionysius or St Thomas Aquinas on the unity of nature and the supernatural, against the modern separation of the natural universe from divine creativity and grace. In short, Benedict rejects the modern dualism of nature and grace or faith and reason and argues for a new overarching synthesis.
The consequence is, to put this in the context of particular issues, that conservatives - particularly in this country - have found Benedict's economic and political ideas (as expressed in Caritatis in Veritate) difficult to swallow, particularly because of his criticism of free-market capitalism, while liberals find his apparent immovability on issues surrounding sexuality deeply disturbing.  But both are the concomitant of Benedict's intellectual tradition:
By rejecting both absolute instrumental reason and blind emotional faith, the Romantic tradition outwits the contemporary convergence of soulless technological progress and an impoverished culture dominated by sexualisation and violence. More fundamentally, it opposes the complicit collusion of boundless economic and social liberalisation that has produced laissez-faire sex and an obsession with personal choice rather than objective (though contested) standards of truth, beauty and goodness - a concern shared by Rowan Williams in his seminal book Lost Icons.
While I would like to see Pabst elaborate on his arguments more fully in a longer essay (perhaps one is forthcoming?), the value of his essay is that he underlines both the depth of Benedict's thought and the degree to which the intellectual tradition in which he stands does not lend itself at all to the simplistic categorization that is so much a part of contemporary political and ecclesial 'dialogue' and media coverage.

P.S. I very highly recommend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion & Ethics web-page, particularly during this time of papal transition.  It consistently runs cracking essays on all facets of religion, and has run a number of good essays on Pope Benedict.  Check them out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI on Old Age

Rocco Palmo over at Whispers in the Loggia (a valuable source for news by and about the Catholic church) posted a copy of a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave last November at a home for the elderly.  In it the pope reflects on the meaning of old age, and speaks frankly about the joys and the trials of longevity.  This is a beautiful reflection, worth reading particularly the day after his resignation.  Most moving to me was his exhortation that the elderly should recognize that they need others, that they must rely on others.  And it seems to me that Benedict took his own advice yesterday.  With complements to Rocco for reminding us of his words, here is Benedict's reflection for the elderly, reprinted from the Vatican website:

"Dear Brothers and Dear Sisters,
I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. It would be superfluous to say that I am well acquainted with the difficulties, problems and limitations of this age and I know that for many these difficulties are more acute due to the economic crisis. At times, at a certain age, one may look back nostalgically at the time of our youth when we were fresh and planning for the future. Thus at times our gaze is veiled by sadness, seeing this phase of life as the time of sunset. This morning, addressing all the elderly in spirit, although I am aware of the difficulties that our age entails I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! At every phase of life it is necessary to be able to discover the presence and blessing of the Lord and the riches they bring. We must never let ourselves be imprisoned by sorrow! We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some “aches and pains” and a few limitations. In our faces may there always be the joy of feeling loved by God and not sadness.
In the Bible longevity is considered a blessing of God; today this blessing is widespread and must be seen as a gift to appreciate and to make the most of. And yet frequently society dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain does not accept it as such: on the contrary it frequently rejects it, viewing the elderly as non-productive or useless. All too often we hear about the suffering of those who are marginalized, who live far from home or in loneliness. I think there should be greater commitment, starting with families and public institutions, to ensure that the elderly be able to stay in their own homes. The wisdom of life, of which we are bearers, is a great wealth. The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life. Those who make room for the elderly make room for life! Those who welcome the elderly welcome life!
From the outset the Community of Sant’Egidio has supported so many elderly people on their way, helping them to stay in their own living milieus and opening various “casa-famiglia” in Rome and throughout the world. Through solidarity between the young and the old it has helped people to understand that the Church is effectively a family made up of all the generations, where each person must feel “at home” and where it is not the logic of profit and of possession that prevails but that of giving freely and of love. When life becomes frail, in the years of old age, it never loses its value and its dignity: each one of us, at any stage of life, is wanted and loved by God, each one is important and necessary.
Today’s visit fits into the European Year of Active Aging and of Solidarity between the Generations. And in this very context I would like to reaffirm that the elderly are a value for society, especially for the young. There can be no true human growth and education without fruitful contact with the elderly, because their life itself is like an open book in which the young generations may find precious indications for their journey through life.
Dear friends, at our age we often experience the need of the help of others; and this also happens to the Pope. In the Gospel we read that Jesus told the Apostle Peter: “when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). The Lord was referring to the way in which the Apostle was to witness to his faith to the point of martyrdom, but this sentence makes us think about that fact that the need for help is a condition of the elderly. I would like to ask you to seek in this too a gift of the Lord, because being sustained and accompanied, feeling the affection of others is a grace! This is important in every stage of life: no one can live alone and without help; the human being is relational. And in this case I see, with pleasure, that all those who help and all those who are helped form one family, whose lifeblood is love.
Dear elderly brothers and sisters, the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements and few meetings; never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness. And this phase of life is also a gift for deepening the relationship with God. The example of Blessed Pope John Paul II was and still is illuminating for everyone. Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world, helping it, perhaps more effectively than collective anxiety. Today I would like to entrust to your prayers the good of the Church and peace in the world. The Pope loves you and relies on all of you! May you feel beloved by God and know how to bring a ray of God’s love to this society of ours, often so individualistic and so efficiency-oriented. And God will always be with you and with all those who support you with their affection and their help.
I entrust you all to the motherly intercession of the Virgin Mary, who always accompanies us on our journey with her motherly love and I willingly impart my blessing to each one of you. I thank you all!"
- Pope Benedict XVI, Visit to the Viva Gli Anziani ("Long Live the Elderly") Home, 12 November 2012

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI's Resignation & the Danger of Labels

I woke up this morning to the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.  For those familiar with comments Benedict made in Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times, a book-length interview with the holy father, this doesn't come as a surprise.  "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office," Benedict said, "then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."

I've had opportunity to read a few reports in the newspapers about the pope's resignation, and predictably enough, attempts are being made to tell the story out of a 'conservative vs. liberal' framework; i.e., how will liberal/conservative Catholics react to the resignation of a 'conservative' pope?

I'm not a Vatican insider.  I don't know Pope Benedict personally, nor do I have any dealings with the Roman curia.  But I have read much of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's works, and it seems to me that Pope Benedict is far too complex a thinker to be classified so easily as a 'conservative'.  Yes, there are issues on which he is immovable (or appears to be), and some people simply dismiss him as a thinker and as a leader because of these issues.  But to do so, I think, would be to miss out on a man of profound insight and depth, whose theology is worth exploring.  Similarly, 'conservatives' who think Benedict is entirely of their ilk need to delve more carefully into his thought.

To take but one issue as an example of Benedict's complexity of thought, James Alison, an openly gay Roman Catholic priest, is a somewhat controversial figure who has called on the church to articulate its understanding of homosexuality differently.  But interestingly enough, he is also a huge fan of Pope Benedict XVI.  And in an interview with Commonweal published on his website, Alison makes a compelling argument that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than any previous pope to bring about broader acceptance of same-sex relationships within a global church in which change does not,  for good reasons, occur quickly (see part II, questions 10-11 of the interview).

However, Benedict's subtlety and complexity on this and on a whole host of issues and topics, doesn't make for good copy, nor does it make for easy exploration.  Those who tend simply to label don't usually want to have to explore someone's thought so diligently.

But my (admittedly limited) experience has been that most people, and particularly those in positions of authority, deserve more courtesy than simply to be labelled, whether positively or negatively.  Most people are far more complex than such labels admit, and while labels may help one digest and make sense of our world, labels often do little more than degrade.

Pope Benedict's decision was courageous and humble.  I pray for him as he seeks, in his words, to "devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer." I pray as well for the cardinals tasked with the job of choosing a leader for our church.

P.S. For those wondering about the canon law surrounding papal resignation (given that this is the first time a pope in modern history has resigned) the folks at America - and specifically Dan Horan, O.F.M. - very helpfully wrote this:
For those who are interested, perhaps the best-known example of a pope resigning was in 1294 when Pope Celestine V (d. 1296) resigned from his office. Benedict XVI is the first in several centuries. According to the Code of Canon Law (CIC) this right of the Roman Pontiff falls under Canon 332, no. 2, which reads: "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." This helps to explain the timing of the Pope's decision, which is an act that can only take place when he is still of sound mind and body.
As for the delivery of this news to the cardinals in attendance this morning, some canon law scholars believe this is essential in assuring the legitimacy of the resignation. According to canonist Knut Walf, "The resignation from office of the pope must be sufficiently manifested and requires no acceptance 'by anyone.' The recipient of the 'manifestation' is not specified. Some commentators are of the opinion that the college of cardinals or its dean as the competent electoral body must be informed of the resignation" (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law , eds. J. Beal, J. Coriden, and T. Green [2000] p. 438). Needless to say, this is a very important announcement of great historical significance.
P.S.S. Some have asked me what the pope is going to do after he resigns.  According to National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican has provided the following answers regarding his resignation and life post-resignation.  Joshua J. McElwee from NCR writes:
Following his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI will move to a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, the Vatican spokesperson has stated.
Four clarifications about the pope's resignation were sent this morning by Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson:

Pope Benedict XVI has given his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.
Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.
Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.
When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection.

Friday, February 1, 2013

To be Open Rather than Dismissive: An Ecumenical Challenge

I am Roman Catholic.  The love of my life is Episcopalian.  I attend mass at 8:30 on Sunday mornings at my parish (which I love) where I am an acolyte and lector, and then go with her to her wonderful Episcopalian parish later in the morning.  I was not raised Roman Catholic, but was received into the church six or so years ago for reasons that I are best expressed in this post, wherein I describe why I'm a Catholic.  I'm generally reluctant to declare my status as a 'convert', not because I am ashamed that I am not a 'cradle Catholic,' but because I've come across many 'converts' to Catholicism who display a lack of charity and love to their previous traditions and who thus demonstrate a troubling dismissive attitude toward any other non-Roman tradition.

Openness & Love
I converted to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican church (the Episcopal church in the USA), but did so with a heavy heart.  I recognized that I had become theologically, ecclesiologically, and spiritually a Roman Catholic, and so, after much deliberation, prayer, and dialogue with my spouse, I made the decision to be received into the Roman church.  But I had and have a great love for the Anglican tradition.  I had and have tremendous respect for the weight of theological discourse in the Anglican tradition, and have a particular fondness for the Anglican liturgy.

So I enjoy attending an Episcopalian church each Sunday.  The liturgy is wonderful, the (now-former) rector is a top-notch homilist, the choir is terrific, and there's an intellectual curiosity and hunger amongst the parishioners that is refreshing.

That said, I've also encountered an anti-Roman Catholic sentiment from (some) parishioners.  This has ranged from virulent expressions of anger to a subtle, though equally troubling, dismissive attitude toward the Roman church, as if the Catholic church wasn't even worth engaging.

Don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of Catholics who are equally as virulent and dismissive in their attitudes toward other Christian traditions, which is just as unacceptable.  But I have found it disconcerting that some at a parish, like my wife's Episcopal parish, that prides itself on openness, on tolerance, and on love can demonstrate a lack of ecumenism and charity when it comes to the Roman Catholic church.  Moreover, when I experience this dismissive attitude, I cannot but look at the many ways I myself have been, and continue to be, dismissive and disparaging of other traditions.  And, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I can be remarkably uncharitable in my understanding, and depiction of, some Christian traditions.

There are two reasons why this comes to my mind today.  First, and to the great credit of this Episcopal parish, I have been asked to lead a class in two weeks focused specifically on clarifying and/or explaining what parishioners find most troubling about the Roman Catholic church.  I'm nervous about this, for I don't want anyone at the parish to get the idea that I'm trying to 'evangelize' or that I'm going to defend my church at all costs.  To do the former would be reprehensible and opposed to every ecumenical bone in my body.  To do the latter would be to deny reality.  I am fully aware of the many issues and problems facing the Roman Catholic church, and am not shy about discussing them.  My goal, rather, is simply to engage in ecumenical dialogue, which requires an openness on all parties toward one another, and a recognition that the other always has something valuable to contribute.

The second reason why this has come to mind has to do with an excellent post about ecumenism published yesterday by a student and friend on his blog (the full post can be found here).  He's finishing his last semester at seminary, and is engaged in some reflection about his time of study.  He writes:
"Before I entered seminary I was warned about many things.  Folks told me about the difficult writing assignments and research papers.  Former students told me that the languages would be difficult but I would manage.  Some warned me about my 'faith being shattered.'  At times my faith began to waver, or appeared to be absent.  But not because I was learning about Jesus's divinity and humanity, an issue the church has been debating since Jesus's ascension.
No, my faith wavered most when I would begin, engage in fully, and overhear conversations that mocked, belittled, and distastefully discussed other denominations of the Christian tradition.  What is ironic is that these same folks would say tasteful and uplifting things about our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu brothers and sisters and to talk about them in ways we talked about fellow Christians is/was simply not an option.  Perhaps this is an opportune time to recognize how many denominations engage in many forms of discrimination and hurtful practices.  Thus I'm not saying as Christians we are to sit idle and allow certain forms of ill-treatment happen.  Rather, this is a reflection on contemplating "speak truth in love."  I think King (another favorite progressives like to quote) mentioned and demonstrated a little something about this."
Adam, who wrote the post, was one of my traveling companions on a recent study-abroad trip I led to Kerala, India, and he mentions that his experience of ecumenical and inter-faith relations in India (as well as his frequent study of Merton) have led him to reflect on the state of such relations in the U.S.A., and particularly, in his own life:
"Merton has taught me that the greatest force to lead towards reconciliation and dialogue (another word progressives like to throw around) is not the force of denominationalism; but it is love.  It is this love we must look through before we offer up a fake prayer, criticize those who worship with hands in the air or bolted to their pews. My awareness of how my own 'snarkiness' towards other denominations grew and has grown tremendously since going to India.  There I was thrown into an environment where dialogue was a necessity; a place where people simply didn't talk about dialogue but they actually engaged in it.  It was a place where Roman Catholics and Marthomans, Evangelicals and Anglicans lived along side Hindu's and Muslims. Places, ashrams to be more precise, were as much a part of the place I visited as Elk and Moose Lodges are a part of the place I live now.  [Another 'awareness' moment:  I was in Kerala for 2 weeks; met only with churches/ashrams/centers that were practicing dialogue; but I met enough folks along the way to not recognize the arrogance I do here when it comes to denominationalism.]"
Adam's post is a refreshingly honest and self-critical reflection on what it means to be ecumenical at a time when so many of us, myself included, find it easier to dismiss and disparage than to engage with openness and love.  And it has me thinking...