Wednesday, April 29, 2015


In a review of a book concerning the the sexual abuse crisis, canon lawyer Tom Doyle states that canon law is a legal system in service to a monarchy.  He is correct; the Roman Catholic Church is a monarchy. (NCR April24 - May7, 2015)  The Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium describes the Roman Catholic Church authority structure:

For in virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the       whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he can always exercise this power freely. (L.G. #22)
   But there is change in process.  The monologue of the Vatican monarchy is shifting to a dialogue.  Benevolent dictator Pope Francis considers evangelization as a way of making the Kingdom of God present in the world.  This is quite different than using evangelization as a tool of recruitment and condemnation.   What can we expect from Pope Francis?  Let’s look to a book published before he was elected Pope – On Heaven and Earth,  written with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and also Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium.


   The book On Heaven and Earth is a publication of some of the inter- religious discussions between two Argentineans, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio and a noted Rabbi and scholar, Abraham Skorka.  The book was originally published in 1995 eight years before Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope.

  The dialogue in the book indicates that both Skorka and Bergoglio were especially interested in issues of social justice.  Chapter 4 is on poverty.  Rabbi Skorka wrote:

All religions have a complete and absolute obligation with regards to fighting poverty.

To make his point Rabbi Skorka cited the Torah as commanding help for the needy.  Cardinal Bergoglio said Christianity inherited the Jewish tradition and referred to Chapter 26 of Mathew as the Christian mandate. Both see working for the poor as a matter of justice - tzedek in Hebrew.  Bergoglio referred to the social doctrine of the Church and noted that it opposed economic liberalism (unrestrained capitalism).  He stated,

We have to seek opportunities and rights and strive for social benefits, dignified retirement, vacation time, rest and freedom of unions.

   Rabbi Skorka noted that in Argentina working for the poor was a shared work between Christians and Jews.  Skorka continued:

We do not proselytize; it is a real commitment to help our fellow man.

 Both agreed that political action for the poor must be free of personal or congregational political ambitions.   

   The religious leaders did not agree on everything, but emphasized the importance of respectful dialogue for the purpose of the Faith community working together for justice.


   Bergoglio as Pope Francis wrote an Encyclical on Evangelization entitled The Joy of the Gospel.  The Encyclical emphasizes social justice and dialogue, and met with strong opposition from conservative Roman Catholics and business interests.  A hierarchy of truths emerges with God’s love for all and the responsibilities of loving God and your neighbor as primary.

   With this emphasis, a new but historical Kerygma (basic teaching) emerges.  The twentieth century Kerygma of European scripture scholars, such as Rudolph Bultman’s Jesus is Lord, is brought back to the basic law – love God and your neighbor.  (Dt. 6:4, Lev. 19:18, Lk. 10:25-28.)

   This change is subtle and nuanced so it doesn’t rate a headline, but it is clear.  For example, in a chapter of Evangelii Gaudium – entitled “Social Dialogue as a Contribution to Peace,” Pope Francis confronts the problem of evangelization of the Jews.  Francis minimizes the 20th century European concept of Kerygma proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and emphasizes that the Catholic Church and Judaism have - “a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.” (#249) What then is evangelization?  For the ‘Vicar of Christ …’ “Evangelization also involves the path of dialogue.” (#235)


   In their book of dialogue, On Heaven and Earth, with Rabbi Skorka, Cardinal Bergoglio clearly upholds the Roman Catholic Church’s position on woman priests, gay marriage, and abortion.  However this does not stop him from working for social justice with dissenters of such church doctrines.  In Evangelii Guadium Pope Francis insists on dialogue with the scientific community, with other Christians, the Jewish community, Muslims and non-believers in order to promote peace and the common good. (Chapter 4)

   A question arises:  will Pope Francis allow dialogue within the Roman Catholic Church?  Could there be a conference of theologians on women priests, et cetera?   Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


   The 2016 presidential race – a marathon - some candidates starting slowly, saving themselves for a public relations sprint to the finish line.  Key to victory is getting massive amounts of money to pay for glib TV ads insisting that the self interest of the voter is best served by a particular candidate.   Is it democracy – is democracy even valued?  One of the candidates, Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, refused to support the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, when he was removed by a military coup in 2009.

   For labor it is a choice of the lesser evil.  Both the Democrat and Republican candidates will probably support the Trans Pacific Partnership (T.P.P.) – a trade agreement that ignores the basic rights of workers. Of course Wall Street is all for it.  The challenge for labor is to minimize the evil of the lesser evil.

   U.S. Democracy is fundamentally flawed.  Most people want immigration reform, but with our present system directed by wealthy oligarchs, such reform is unlikely.  If given the chance, Latino worker citizens would vote the Wall Street puppets out of office.  Income inequality is talked about but nothing of substance is presented as a solution.  Labor as the voice in the work place on wages, safety or national politics is not presented as important.  President Obama offered hope for E.F.C.A. (Employee Fair Trade Act) but nothing came of it.   Of course it goes without saying – the workers in the Pacific nations of the pact certainly have no voice. Globalization of the economy means we work for a global common good.

   Benevolent dictator, Pope Francis, has a different view. He cites ‘preferential option for the poor’ as a criterion for economic justice. The T.P.P. would not pass muster.  The Pope insists on dialogue, but did his man, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, dialogue or preach to Manuel Zelaya before supporting the coup that ousted the president elected by the people? The resulting violence has sent a flood of children to the U.S. border.

  Once again labors’ task is monumental.  Questions on T.P.P., income inequality, immigration reform and E.F.C.A. must be constantly presented. Specific answers are needed not a smoothing over by expensive public relations experts.

Thursday, April 16, 2015



   I sometimes joke about it, but there is some truth in the absurdity of it.   I say I change religions in the spring; come spring I am a golf worshiper.  It is a difficult religion because there are many gods – the wind god, the sand god, gods that lurk in the woods, the water god.  To get over a water hazard, I’ll throw a ball in as a sacrifice. 

Alan Toft and Jim Lange in Mesquite, Nevada

   T.V. advertisements for this year’s Masters in Augusta, Georgia finally made me aware of a challenge to my golf faith.  Am I supposed to be excited about a bourgeois event that is an icon of racism and classism?

    I have Master’s history?  In 1949 our caddy master at Oak Park Country Club in suburban Chicago gave the caddies  permission to watch an exhibition match featuring a foursome of Johnny Palmer, Jimmy Thompson, Horton Smith and ‘Errie Ball. ‘  Errie was the current Oak Park pro and Horton Smith preceded him by a few years.  Both had played in early Masters Tournaments with Smith as one of the first winners.

   Errie Ball (His given name was Harry, but we’ll let that go.) was encouraged to emigrate from England by Bobby Jones, one of the founders of the Masters.  Errie was an outstanding ‘tee to green’ player but had trouble on the greens with his putting.  I remember he used to whack the heel of his shoe with his putter when he’d miss a short putt and mutter “gadamit.”  As his caddy I braced myself for the possibility that he might miss and hit his ankle.

   The final round of the Masters this year was Sunday, April 12.  It would be dramatic and a great story.  Twenty-one year old Jordan Spieth was poised to win.  But we had been invited to a Seder Meal at Congregation Sinai.  The Seder Meal commemorates the migration of the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land.  Among those sponsoring the event was the New Sanctuary Movement of Voces de la Frontera and Miklat, a Jewish support group.  

   Joanne could have gone by herself and then I could have watched the Masters on TV.  I decided to go to the Seder.  It was an emotional experience.  Our Latino families were there – we told our own immigration stories and became more aware that the Exodus narrative of the migration from slavery in Egypt is the basic story of Faith recounting God’s intervention in history for justice and liberation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Working Catholic: Vocation Culture by Bill Droel

 There’s a vocation crisis among physicians. First, a crisis of numbers. Not enough young adults, particularly those from the United States, are applying to medical school and not enough of those who do apply want a general practice. Second, a crisis of meaning. Many doctors, to greater or lesser degree are disillusioned.

Meagan O’Rourke, writing in The Atlantic (11/14), reviews seven recent books by or about physicians. “The very meaning and structure of care” is in crisis, she concludes. It relates to our fee-for-service medical economy, concerns about litigation, the pace of patient encounters, ambivalence about medical technology, doctors’ relationship to hospital administration, complexities of private and public insurance and more. According to one survey, 80% of practicing physicians are “somewhat pessimistic or very pessimistic about the future of the medical profession.” Only 6% describe their morale as positive.

This serious situation is not what those in church circles have in mind when they use the phrase “the vocation crisis.” Editors of religious newspapers often run a special section on vocations. They feature priests, deacons, seminarians and vowed religious. Yet they neglect the vocations of manufacturers, financiers, administrators, appliance repair workers and doctors. Occasionally, a headline in one of these special sections makes their bias worse. It reads something like: “Leaving a Career to Do God’s Will.”
Those who write the Prayers of Intercession for the liturgy sometimes mistake the part for the whole. One prayer is “for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.” But there is no subsequent prayer “for an increase in the vocation of responsible parenting.”

Every diocese has a vocation office—either with paid staff or volunteers. Every religious order has a vocation division. Yet all their posters, mailings and programs are pointed at vocations to the religious life while they seemingly ignore the vocation crisis in the wider church; the crisis in some of the trades, in some professions and in homemaking.

Oh yes, clergy have a high calling but it is in virtue of their baptism. Oh yes, clergy have a vocation, but so do fathers who care about their babies. Oh yes, there is a vocation crisis, but it can be found in social work, some fields of education and more. A nurse who agrees to stay beyond his or her shift to cover for someone absent is responding to a calling. That’s the case even if the nurse does so grudgingly; even though the nurse will get extra pay; even though the nurse will not have a sense of holiness while completing that evening’s rounds.

To highlight baptism is not to suggest an elimination of ordination. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a champion of the lay vocation, but his priesthood was valuable to him and ordination remains vital in Lutheran Christianity.

To highlight baptism is not to reach back for a two-tiered church where clergy and laity stay apart. Lay people have a duty to build up the internal or ministerial church by, for example, serving (paid or volunteer) as catechists, ministers of care, extraordinary ministers during liturgy and more. This duty, be reminded, is not because there is a relative shortage of ordained and vowed religious. Priests and religious have a duty to support and at time critique external church matters, including areas of business or medical ethics, policies for the poor, all matters of human dignity. This function though is more effective when conveyed in general tones. Ordination does not confer any extra talent or intelligence regarding specific details of business management, public policy analysis or journalism. A priest or vowed religious who wades deeper into those areas does so as a citizen and a baptized person. In other words, every Christian is a member of the church, the people of God.
 Obviously in practice the exercise of a clerical vocation overlaps with the exercise of a lay vocation. That overlap is a clue. The only way to address the relative shortage of clergy is for the whole church—its workaday members and its institutions--to foster a vocation culture among all baptized. With that effort the relative shortage of ordained clergy and religious will take care of itself.

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter about faith and work.

Friday, April 3, 2015


   Easter is a time to reflect on the basics of Christianity- the kerygma. In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis says that the fundamental truth of Christianity is God loves all and that we are to act to bring about a   kingdom of love.  Francis’ concern is about the marginalized yet the Roman Catholic Church continues to ally itself with the culture of a civilization of wealth.  (see Jon Sobrino, ‘On the Way to Healing,’ America, Nov. 10, 2014)  There is no outrage over chronic racism or the attempt to destroy the hope of the poor and the middle class, the union movement.

   Was it better before Vatican II?  I remember as a student in a Dominican high school in Oak Park, IL  (1949 – 1953) being very aware of the social encyclicals Rerum Novarum and  Quadrigesimo Anno.  It was made clear to sons of the suburban bourgeois that the encyclicals established that workers had the right to organize. Also we knew racism was wrong.  I remember a ringing denunciation of racism in a religion class.

   But is that the whole story?  The most popular writer on Roman Catholic Spirituality before Vatican II (1962 -1965) was Thomas Merton. Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, begun in 1944 and published in 1948, was a best seller to a wounded world recovering from World War II entering the age of anxiety and the cold war.



   The young energetic and passionate Thomas Merton of the 1930’s was mostly concerned about his place in a world rocketing towards another horrible war. He had read a bit of Marx, flirted with the communist party because of its apparent opposition to war, but had no awareness of the alienated worker without a political voice.  Marx’ treatise, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which demonstrated that economic liberalism separated the worker from his humanity, was not available.   

   In 1939 after meeting a priest interested in the labor movement Merton wrote:

Being interested in unions is as proper an interest for a priest as the interest in writing and painting. (Run to the Mountain, The Journals of Thomas Merton – Volume One 1939-1940, Harper, San Francisco, 1996, p. 100.) 

In other words a compatible hobby, not directly related to the basic Christian message.

    Beginning theologian Merton gets close to the problem and a solution with his experience in New York City’s Harlem.  He wrote in The Seven Story Mountain:

Do Catholics have a labor policy? Have the Popes said anything about these problems?  The Communists know more about these Encyclicals than the average Catholic.  Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno are discussed and analyzed in their public meetings, and the Reds end up by appealing to their audience … ‘Even their priests in Harlem go outside and hire white men when they want somebody to repaint their churches!’ …  (The Seven Story Mountain, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Harcourt, 1999,  p. 374)

There is no other reference to labor unions in The Seven Story Mountain.

    Merton’s experience in Harlem made him acutely aware of racism.  He wrote:

… the prejudice that hems them in (Negros in Harlem herded in like cattle) with its four insurmountable walls.  In this huge cauldron, inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry are stamped down and left to boil with the dregs of an elementary corrupted nature …  (Ibid. p.378. Corrupted nature refers to original sin)

Merton was sensitive and angered by the situation in Harlem. He realized there was something wrong with the prevailing capitalist culture:

No, there is not a Negro in the whole place who can fail to know, in the marrow of his own bones, that the white man’s culture is not worth the jetsam in the Harlem River.(Ibid. p. 379)


   Neophyte theologian Merton was trapped by belief in the dogmatic non-historical understanding of Faith at that time. Merton wrote in his diary while in Havana, Cuba – April 1940:

He (Pilate) recognized that Christ was innocent and washed his hands of the whole affair.  Pilate is the hero of the 19th century. He was a great liberal.  (Run to the Mountain. P. 201)

Historical research has shown that Pilate was a vicious and cruel administrator for the Roman Empire.  But Merton indicates that the ‘Jews’ were responsible for Jesus crucifixion.  He also wrote in the diary of April, 1940 :

But before Pilate’s hands were dry, the Jews had laid the heavy cross upon Christ’s shoulder and were driving Him up to the path to Calvary. (Run to the Mountain, p. 201.)

Crucifixion was reserved by Rome for political crime; Rome would have allowed Jesus to be stoned to death by those who might have opposed him for religious hearsay.  Jesus’ confrontation with Rome was political  and revolutionary.  Christian theology blaming the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion was at least partially responsible for the holocaust – the murder of 6 million Jews.  Despite the young Merton’s horror of war, the holocaust and Christianity’s complicity would have been beyond imagination.


              Lord my God, in you I take refuge… Psalm 7

   After discussions with friends and spiritual advisors Merton decided against joining the Franciscans, or working in Harlem, to join the Trappists at Gethsemane, Kentucky.  He was searching for perfection which he determined was a spiritual relationship with God in the silence of contemplative life.  If he were to be active, it would be in writing.  Was it really an escape from an absurd world or a plunge into solitary confinement?   Merton describes his entrance to the monastery:

So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom. (The Seven Story Mountain, p. 410.)


   Certainly the Thomas Merton of The Seven Story Mountain was different from the post Vatican II Merton of the 60’s who spoke out against racism and the war in Vietnam.  The documents of Vatican II such as Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et Spes and Ecumenism must have had an influence on him. 

   The current church, in its search for identity, lost after testing the waters of ecumenism, no longer has the pre-Vatican II passion for social justice, such as that of the young Thomas Merton.  However, the passion for social justice was not enough for Merton to overcome a theology that saw contemplation as the ideal life.

    Vatican II opened the way for the thrust to peace by working ecumenically for justice. Merton took advantage of the opportunity by speaking and writing. But what is the faith context for political action?  I remember a synagogue on the way to high school in Oak Park with the inscription on the wall from the Prophet Zechariah,

Not by might and power but by my spirit, says Yahweh Sabaoth.