Tag Archives: Christianity

The Synod on the Family and the Developing World

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First World Problems?

Not long after his election, the new Pope explained why he had taken the name “Francis”: “Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.” It was refreshing: the Pope was going to change the basic terms of the conversation between the Church and the world. Instead of waging a grinding “culture war” against a secular West, the Church would instead speak to the most urgent concerns of the global East and South. The first Pope to come from beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin promised to be the champion of those who lived in the parts of the earth where hunger, injustice and persecution abounded. Places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Nigeria had already become the true center of gravity of a global Church, displacing Quebec, Chicago, Milan and Vienna. The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Indeed, even considering “family” issues alone, the non-Western Church was short-changed: how much attention was given to the question of inter-faith marriages, despite its being a major concern for the Church in India? In the Philippines, many marriages break up because poverty forces a spouse or parent to migrate overseas in search of employment, leaving home, spouse and children behind. Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle noted this problem, saying that poverty “goes right at the heart of the family” in his country ; but how much attention did this issue get?

What is more, the organizers of the Synod openly expressed their indifference to – if not contempt for – the opinions of the leaders of the non-Western Church. They spoke as if the opposition of the African bishops to their “modernizing” program could stem only from irrational hatred and prejudice. What the Africans needed, they seemed to be saying, was a good, stiff dose of Richard Posner’s writings. In the controversy over the initial draft of the Synod’s statement, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an octogenarian German theologian and a favorite of the Pope’s, infamously said:

Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

Kasper later denied having made those revealing remarks – a denial that was then proven to be false. In any case, the remarks hardly seemed out of character for the Cardinal. In an interview with the German magazine Focus published under the heading “Third World Land,” Kasper was reported to have said, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.” The German Cardinal obviously notices different things when he is at the airport from what Cardinal Tagle does. The Philippine prelate spoke of his anguish in watching Filipino mothers at airports forced to part from their children because their poverty is so desperate that they must leave their families and search for work abroad.

Not Just Cardinal Kasper

Even if Cardinal Kasper’s statement were merely condescension on the part of the passenger with the first-class cabin towards the passengers in steerage, it would be bad enough. But Kasper and those like him simply did not seem to understand the position. Perhaps the Africans and Asians are not just squinting narrowly at the issue of homosexuality, but rather looking at the state of Western culture as a whole? And perhaps they do not like what they see? Perhaps the cultural exports of the secular West – its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents? (New York Cardinal Dolan’s wonderful defense of the “prophetic” African Church effectively made these points. )

But the problem with the Synod went far beyond the tactlessness and incomprehension of elderly European churchmen. Apparently at the Pope’s insistence, the Synod’s final report included three controversial articles that had received the approval of a Synod majority, but not the supermajority required for consensus. The final report will now go to the Church throughout the world for discussion and debate before the Synod reconvenes. You can be sure that the media coverage of the debate in this intervening period will focus overwhelmingly on the articles that the Pope reinstated. Cui bono? In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.

My former student, Andrew Ratelle, makes the point forcefully:

By upholding the nuclear family, the Church made what was perhaps the most important social investment in history. People in the poorer, more pagan regions of the world where polygamy, polyandry, arranged and child marriages were common, now had a place to look for support when it came to building a life that was most beneficial for themselves and their children. By weakening this support, or at the very least dispersing it to include more “diverse” arrangements, these bishops have weakened the very shield from which the nuclear family has received so much protection. Even in our own country, where “diverse” familial arrangements have almost become synonymous with urban poverty and crime (at least for those who have no gilded safety net to fall into), where should families look to now, since the Church has seen fit to dilute the medicine they have thrived on for so long?

Church leaders in the developing world understand this perfectly well. South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, for instance, wondered how he could deny communion to an African man living in polygamy in accordance with local culture and tradition, if he had to administer the sacrament to a divorced man married to his second wife? “Successive” polygamy, Napier pointed out, is hardly distinguishable from “simultaneous” polygamy.

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Photo from the Catholic News Agency.

Haynes, “Faith-Based Organizations at the United Nations”

In December, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Faith-Based Organizations at the United Nations” by Jeffrey Haynes (London Metropolitan University). The publisher’s description follows:

The book examines selected faith-based organisations (FBOs) and their attempts to seek to influence debate and decision-making at the United Nations (UN). Increasing attention on FBOs in this context has followed what is widely understood as a widespread, post-Cold War ‘religious resurgence’, which characterises a novel ‘postsecular’ international environment. One aspect of the new postsecular environment is increasing focus on global public policy at the UN, from FBOs from various religious traditions, especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

“John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement” (Bradley & Forster, eds.)

This December, Lexington Books will release “John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness” edited by Anthony B. Bradley (King’s College) and Greg Forster (Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book critiques the Rawlsian concepts of “justice as fairness” and “public reason” from the perspective of Christian political theory and practice. The Rawlsian paradigm has become pervasive in multiple disciplines outside political philosophy and is unconsciously embedded in a great deal of Christian public discourse; this calls for a new level of analysis from Christian perspectives. This is the first volume to examine Rawls based on Christian principles drawn from theological ethics, social thought, political theory and practical observation. In addition to theoretical perspectives, the book connects its critique of Rawls to specific hot-topic practical questions in three areas: social issues (abortion, marriage, etc.), economic issues (wealth creation, poverty programs, etc.), and the increasing difficulty of political compromise and peaceful coexistence in the context of the culture war. The book includes some of the leading Christian political theorists in America.

Owen, “Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville”

In December, Cambridge University Press will release “Making Religion Safe for Democracy: Transformation from Hobbes to Tocqueville”  by  J. Judd Owen (Emory University). The publisher’s description follows:

Does the toleration of liberal democratic society mean that religious faiths are left substantively intact, so long as they respect the rights of others? Or do liberal principles presuppose a deeper transformation of religion? Does life in democratic society itself transform religion? In Making Religion Safe for Democracy, J. Judd Owen explores these questions by tracing a neglected strand of Enlightenment political thought that presents a surprisingly unified reinterpretation of Christianity by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson. Owen then turns to Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the effects of democracy on religion in the early United States. Tocqueville finds a religion transformed by democracy in a way that bears a striking resemblance to what the Enlightenment thinkers sought, while offering a fundamentally different interpretation of what is at stake in that transformation. Making Religion Safe for Democracy offers a novel framework for understanding the ambiguous status of religion in modern democratic society.

On Old Age (and Ezekiel Emanuel)

In a much-discussed Atlantic essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel — physician, public commentator, and prominent supporter of the Affordable Care Act — argues that we’d all be better off if we died at 75. That way, we would escape the debility and indignity that accompany old age and avoid being burdens to our children and other loved ones. And we would have the solace of not outliving our productivity. After all, he writes, “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Emanuel has no plan to commit suicide if he reaches 75, he says. But he plans to reject all medical treatments, even routine ones, that go beyond the palliative.

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He Knew

Emanuel rightly mocks “American immortals” who seem to believe they should (and maybe will!) live forever. And, in a culture like ours, which values youth and professional achievement virtually above everything else, his argument has a kind of plausibility. I’ve had 25 year-old students tell me they already feel over the hill. Why linger on into your eighties or nineties, when your best days and accomplishments are far behind you? Plus, society would save lots of money if people stopped seeking medical care at 75.

Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity — these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.

Not everyone believes this, of course. But one needn’t be a Christian, or a religious believer of any kind, to appreciate that old age has some things to offer. “For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life,” said the pagan Cicero (above). And one needn’t be a religious believer to see that the elderly may still have much to contribute to us, even if they are weak, sick, and no longer able to write symphonies.

In a lovely response to Emanuel, my friend, John McGinnis, explains this, offering his own parents as an example. John does a much better job than I could, so I’ll just quote him:

But youth and good health do not measure humanity. Millions in diminished health enjoy life, being with their relatives, laughing at old movies, even just sitting in the breeze and sunshine. And their relatives and friends enjoy being with them. Indeed, they may find in the elderly’s struggle with aging an inspiration and a reaffirmation of life. In caring for the frail, weak and sometimes woebegone, they may also expand their own sympathies and express some small measure of gratitude for the debt of a good upbringing that can never be fully repaid.

That is certainly my experience watching my parents age well past 75. I have never admired my father more than when at the cusp of ninety he faces down his own infirmities and cares for my mother who has Parkinson’s disease. And although much is taken from my mother, much abides—her concern for others, her delight in reading new novels and rereading old ones. Emanuel argues that in seeing the decline of those we love, we may forget our happy memories of them in their years of vigor and achievement. But those memories do not need to summoned at particular times, because they infuse my being. In any event, the most valuable memories of all are not defined by physical wellbeing but by spirit and character. For so many people beyond 75 the forging of character continues and the power of their spirit at their end will instruct us by example at our own.

For one important thing, though, Emanuel is to be commended. Most of us do our best to ignore our mortality and the questions it raises about how we’re living our lives. As Pascal observed long ago, people will do pretty much anything to distract themselves and avoid thinking about it. That’s not wise; even a long life goes by so very fast. Every writer knows the benefits of deadlines: they force you to concentrate and get serious. Well, Emanuel says, he’s given himself a deadline.

“The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective” (Mermelstein & Holtz eds.)

This month, Brill releases “The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective” edited by Ari Mermelstein (Yeshiva University) and Shalom E. Holtz (Yeshiva University). The publisher’s description follows:

Contributors to The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective treat one of the most pervasive religious metaphors, that of the divine courtroom, in both its historical and thematic senses. In order to shed light on the various manifestations of the divine courtroom, this volume consists of essays by scholars of the ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, early Christianity, Talmud, Islam, medieval Judaism, and classical Greek literature. Contributions to the volume primarily center upon three related facets of the divine courtroom: the role of the divine courtroom in the earthly legal system; the divine courtroom as the site of historical justice; and the divine courtroom as the venue in which God is called to answer for his own unjust acts.

Where the Queen Prays in Scotland

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Crathie Kirk

As everyone knows, Scotland votes tomorrow on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. In Scotland last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth made a statement most have interpreted as a commentary on the situation. Scots should think very carefully about the future, she said.

I’m sure the Queen meant that Scots should vote “No.” How could she have meant otherwise? What interests me, though, is that she made the statement after services at Crathie Kirk, a parish of the Church of Scotland. In fact, she regularly worships at Crathie Kirk when she’s in Scotland, at her Balmoral estate.

Now, Queen Elizabeth is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican communion. The Church of Scotland is not Anglican, but Presbyterian. Relations between the two churches are cordial (though they have not always been so), but the Queen is not a Presbyterian. She’s an Anglican. So why does she regularly worship in the Scottish Kirk? Are there no Church of England parishes near Balmoral? Couldn’t she fly in a vicar from London?

As far as I can tell, this arrangement is one of those historical accommodations that have ripened into custom. The Treaty of Union of 1707 — the treaty Scots may overturn tomorrow — requires the British Monarch to preserve the Church of Scotland. The Monarch takes an oath to that effect upon accession to the throne. Sometimes the Monarch attends meetings of the Church’s General Assembly. Usually she sends a representative.

It’s thus quite natural for British Monarchs to feel that, whatever their official role in the Church of England, they have a place in the Church of Scotland as well. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria caused a scandal when she received communion in the Church of Scotland, but she maintained that as the country’s — that is, Scotland’s — Queen, she had every right to do so. Since then, every reigning Monarch has worshiped at Crathie Kirk.

So, there it is. In England, the Monarch is an Anglican; in Scotland, she prays with the Presbyterians. How very British. I mean that in a good way, and I use the term advisedly. After tomorrow, it may mean something else.

Lynerd, “Republican Theology”

This September, Oxford University Press released “Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals” by Benjamin T. Lynerd (Roosevelt University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Republican TheologyWhite evangelicals occupy strange property on the ideological map in America, exhibiting a pronounced commitment to the principle of limited government, and yet making a significant exception for issues relating to personal morality – an exception many observers take to be paradoxical at best. Explanations of this phenomenon usually point to the knotty political alliance evangelicals built with free-market types in the late twentieth century, but sermonic evidence suggests a deeper and longer intellectual thread, one that has pervaded evangelical thought all the way back to the American founding.

In Republican Theology, Benjamin Lynerd offers an historical and theological account of the hybrid position evangelicals have long affected to hold in American culture – as champions of individual liberty and as guardians of American morality. Lynerd documents the development of a resilient, if problematic, tradition in American political thought, one that sees a free republic, a virtuous people, and an assertive Christianity as mutually dependent. Situating the recent rise of the “New Right” within this larger framework, Republican Theology traces the contentious political journey of evangelicals from its earliest moments, laying bare the conceptual tensions built into their civil religion.

Anderson, “Conservative Christian Politics in Russia and the United States”

This October, Routledge Press will release “Conservative Christian Politics in Russia and the United States: Dreaming of Christian Nations” by John Anderson (University of St. Andrews).  The publisher’s description follows:

Conservative Christian PoliticsThis book explores the politics of conservative Christian churches and social movements in Russia and the United States, focusing on their similar concerns but very different modes of political engagement.

Whilst secularisation continues to chip away at religious adherence and practice in Europe, religion is often, quite rightly, seen as an influential force in the politics of the United States, and, more questionably, as a significant influence in contemporary Russia. This book looks at the broad social movement making up the US Christian Right and the profoundly hierarchical leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church as socially conservative actors, and some of the ways they have engaged in contemporary politics. Both are seeking to halt the perceived drift towards a more secular political order; both face significant challenges in handling the consequences of secularism, pluralism and liberal individualism; and both believe that their nations can only be great if they remain true to their religious heritage. In exploring their experience, the book focuses on shared and different elements in their diagnosis of what is wrong with their societies and how this affects their policy intervention over issues such as religious and ethnic belonging, sexual orientation and education.

Drawing on political, sociological and religious studies, this work will be a useful reference for students and scholars of religion and politics, Russian politics and American politics.

Yancey & Williamson, “So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States?”

In November, Rowman & Littlefield will release “So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States?” by George Yancey (University of North Texas) and David A. Williamson (University of North Texas). The publisher’s description follows:

So Many Christians, So Few Lions is a provocative look at anti-Christian sentiments in America. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative research, authors George Yancey and David A. Williamson show that even though (or perhaps because) Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, bias against Christians also exists—particularly against conservative Christians—and that this bias is worth understanding.

 The book does not attempt to show the prevalence of anti-Christian sentiments—called Christianophobia—but rather to document it, to dig into where and how it exists, to explore who harbors these attitudes, and to examine how this bias plays itself out in everyday life. Excerpts from the authors’ interviews highlight the fear and hatred that some people harbor towards Christians, especially the Christian right, and the ways these people exhibit elements of bigotry, prejudice, and dehumanization. The authors argue that understanding anti-Christian bias is important for understanding some social dynamics in America, and they offer practical suggestions to help reduce religious intolerance of all kinds.