Updating Catholic Worship

March 18, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology, | 2 Comments
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HONEST RITUALS, HONEST SACRAMENTS: LETTING GO OF DOCTRINES AND CELEBRATING WHAT’S REAL.

By Joseph Martos

Published by Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock Publishers. 156 pages. $20.00.

A woman is denied marriage in the church because she can’t secure the annulment of her previous marriage to a mentally ill husband who has disappeared. A Catholic grandmother believes her Buddhist granddaughter is going to hell because the seal of her earlier baptism is eternal.  The seriously ill and dying in a local hospital are denied the anointing of the sick because the Catholic chaplain is a woman and no priests are available.

As theologian of the sacraments, Joseph Martos, explains, these are common experiences in today’s Catholic church. But why do such sacramental barriers exist half a century after the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II? In Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments, Martos takes us back through the history of the church, from the first Christian communities through the Middle Ages to today to lay bare the roots of such problems and propose a contemporary solution.

For Martos, the rituals celebrated by the early Christians were grounded in the actual experiences of the members of the community—conversion, caring, and commitment to the ethical values of Jesus.  The writers of the Epistles and Gospels used metaphors to represent these experiences: baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the presence of Christ in the weekly meal. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, differences between Christian groups threatened imperial unity, so Constantine ordered the bishops to call the Council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed, fashioned there to implement that unity, included almost no references to the ethical teachings of Jesus that underpinned early Christian rituals. Metaphors of lived experience became metaphysical realities in which to believe.  And in the Middle Ages, “schoolmen” in the monasteries drew upon this metaphysical theology to explain the sacraments. The sacraments, according to them, worked automatically.

And this, to all intents and purposes, is what the Catholic Church teaches about sacraments today.  The various sacraments imprint indelible marks—supernatural gifts—on the soul of the passive recipient; And in the Eucharist, the bread and wine actually become a new substance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Given that centuries have passed since the schoolmen fashioned this interpretation of the sacraments, it is time for the church, Martos argues, to reimagine and redesign the sacraments so that they once again express the genuine spiritual experiences of the Christian community. To give some examples: we should celebrate the sacrament of ordination not as the according of miraculous powers to an individual but as the communal recognition of those who have the skills needed for ministry—preaching, administration, counseling, governance—skills that are not limited by gender or sexual orientation. Marriage becomes the celebration of the spiritual reality at the heart of a mutually supportive, agapic relationship, not a purity-based commitment to procreation. Reconciliation should mean reaching out into the community to bring alienated groups and individuals together, not an individualist ritual of forgiveness for having broken some rules. The anointing of the sick, Martos believes, is already an “honest ritual” because the forms have expanded from a ritual exclusively for the dying to a variety of ceremonies, in hospitals and nursing homes, at healing Masses in parishes though the exclusion of women celebrants continues to be a problem). And the Eucharist should become the celebration and affirmation of what brings people together in a particular community around the vision and values of Jesus. Local church communities, under the leadership of local bishops, should implement these changes.

The scope and depth of the knowledge Martos draws upon to make his argument for a new, more honest sacramental theology is breathtaking. I found his examination of translations, and even of the use of capital letters, in the gradual divinizing of the Holy Spirit, for example, fascinating and convincing. His exploration of the work of the schoolmen in the Middle Ages is likewise quite absorbing. And his use of contemporary philosophy and ritual studies greatly enhanced my understanding of the sacraments. By the end of the book, it is difficult to dispute the basic argument Martos makes, that the current theology of the sacraments, at least the kind that Catholics encounter in parishes, needs serious updating, even reconstruction.

I find it ironic, however, that what seems to be the foundation of Matos’s critique of contemporary Catholic sacramental thinking is the clear, even absolute distinction between metaphysics and experience.  For isn’t the implementation of such a binary itself a form of metaphysical thinking? Consider, for example, the book’s subtitle: Letting Go of Doctrine and Celebrating What is Real. Doctrine is fake and experienced-based rituals are real, we are led to believe. But what about Catholic communities for whom reality is intimately connected with doctrine? What about Catholic communities in Africa for whom the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of their experience, even as it also includes the practice of justice and caring that characterized the early church? Does calling such belief “magical thinking” qualify as caring? Martos does, in fact, acknowledge from time to time that some “dishonest rituals,” based in belief and not experience, are unintentional. But too often, his discourse is dismissive of religious views that are also a part of contemporary realty. In my experience, Christians, including theologians, need to find less disdainful ways of engaging these differences.

 

This review appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 55, No. 11, March 8-21, 2019, p. 14.

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But Who Will Govern the Climate?

March 10, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. By Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright. New York: Verso Books. 2018. 118 pp. $26.95 (includes free eBook). https://www.versobooks.com/books/2545-climate-leviathan

I begin this review with a warning: Climate Leviathanis a fairly nerdy book. The authors are brilliant political scientists and the argument they make draws on a wide range of challenging scholarship. Yet that argument is really important, so I’m going to discuss it with you.

That’s what book reviews are for, right?

The basic problem Mann and Wainright address in Climate Leviathan is that despite repeated unambiguous warnings from scientists about the dire effects of global warming and multiple meetings between world leaders on the topic, nations have failed to make any headway at mitigating—lessening—greenhouse gas emissions. Because of these failures we are now doomed to exceed the limit of two degrees Celsius, resulting in massive harmful outcomes—sea level rise, droughts, massive fires, extreme weather events. So where does this leave us?

While technocrats advocate physical adaptations to climate change—spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to block out the sun, building tidal walls, etc., Mann and Wainright explain that an effective response to the climate crisis is necessarily political in nature. We have to come to political agreement on a way to enforce change. They draw on Leviathan, the 1652 work of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argues that without a sovereign power to make and enforce laws, anarchy and violence are inevitable. Leviathan, that sovereign power, is also entitled to declare a “state of exception” in the face of a crisis and then suspend laws and take absolute control. Hobbes’s 20thcentury followers believed that Enlightenment notions of individual freedom led to the chaos of world wars and Nazism. And certainly, the citizens of many nations around the world continue to believe in the sovereign power of their particular nation-state, even as “free” trade agreements and international financial bodies determine more and more of the world’s future.

The climate crisis calls the supposed autonomy of sovereign nation states into question, however, for the simple reason that the environmental behaviors of the citizens of nations and their corporations flow inevitably beyond national borders. Consider the effects of the greenhouse gases from the U.S. and Europe on nations in the Global South. Consider that experts are predicting that there could be as many as a billion climate refugees pouring across national borders by 2050. And then consider the “sovereign” states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and elsewhere that will literally no longer exist by the end of the century because of sea level rise.

In the face of the border-bursting realities of the environmental crisis, Mann and Wainright speculate that one of four new transnational political structures will emerge, replacing the modern capitalist framework of individual sovereign nation-states. The first, the one they find most likely, is Climate Leviathan, a global capitalist system empowered to take drastic action; such a system already exists, at least in embryo, as embodied in in the United Nations COP meetings and the Paris Climate accord. These gatherings are not yet sovereign—with hegemonic power—but they point toward an international sovereignty long predicted.

The second climate sovereign is what the authors call Climate Mao, an anti-capitalist authoritarian socialist entity acting to address climate breakdown, probably through revolutionary developments in Asia where climate change effects will be dire. This is not the present Chinese state, the authors remind us, since it is a major part of the capitalist system, but an entity more like the earlier version under Chairman Mao.

The third sovereign response to climate change Mann and Wainright call Climate Behemoth, a reactionary capitalist populism made up of fossil fuel corporations, middle class reactionaries and enraged working-class people who reject the work of international forums like the 2015 Paris accord in favor of anarchy. The politics of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsinaro and others embody this third option. Climate Behemoth may seem conceivable in the short run, but in the long run, it means disaster.

The fourth Leviathan proposed by Mann and Wainright is Climate X, a bottoms-up people driven power predicated on “equality, democracy and solidarity” and modeled on socialist and indigenous movements that will lead us to live “differently, radically differently.” In some ways, this fourth political sovereign is the least conceivable of the four, perhaps because we the people must come together and determine the specificities of it.

So why should any of this matter to us? For several reasons. First of all, it forces us to realize that the emerging environmental catastrophe is inevitably political. Personal actions are important—giving up meat or disposable plastics—but the environmental crisis is going to have serious collective repercussions, so we have to act politically. Contact your representatives, make phone calls, turn out for demonstrations.

For me, another takeaway from Climate Leviathan is not to be naïve about the current political structures. The 2015 Paris climate accord may have given us hope, as do other international meetings and documents. But they all fall within Climate Leviathan, which is based in the capitalist system that has caused the current crisis because of its demand for endless growth.

Finally, we need to be aware that several of these political models may already be coming together to take control of the future. Trump’s apparent Climate Behemoth, for example, calling for border walls to protect us from the dangers of Latin American migrants, actually reinforces the capitalist Leviathan that has been growing steadily under previous presidencies. The US is steadily expanding its military/security state to exclude climate refugees and imprison US indigenous “terrorists” to protect the fossil fuel industry and the capitalist society that created the climate crisis in the first place. We need to be very, very careful of this Leviathan.

 

This review appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication off the Grail in the US.

 

March 3 Homily: The Fruit-Filled Tree of Resurrected Wisdom

March 2, 2019 at 11:12 am | Posted in Catholicism | 5 Comments
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I am in the habit of going up to Benincasa, the splendid lay Catholic community on West 70th Street in Manhattan, for a liturgy on the first Sunday of each month. I love the people who live there–Jimmy, Sean and Karen–and the many others who join them for various events. People take turns preaching the sermon as part of the first Sunday liturgy, and it happens that I am giving the homily tomorrow, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. I am sharing it with you here. (Participants in the liturgy engage in a discussion after the sermon, hence the question at the end.)

Reading 1: Sirach: 27: 4-7

Reading II: 1 Cor. 15:54-5

Gospel: Lk 6:39-45.

So for the past five weeks, since the 4thSunday in Ordinary Time, we have been reading about Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, and about his recruitment and preparation of disciples to share in that ministry. And for the past two weeks, Jesus’s instruction of the disciples and of the others who have been following him has been quite inspiring. First we had Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, telling us not just that the poor in spirit are blessed, but that the poor themselves are. Then last week, we heard Luke 6, in which the disciples—and we—are urged to love our enemies. The great New Testament scholar Fred Craddock argues that the exhortation in the middle of that passage: “…love your enemies and do good to them…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” is the essence of the Christian Gospel.

Without some context, this week’s reading may seem a good bit less inspiring. Jesus is calling on the disciples, and us, not to think too highly of ourselves: don’t be a hypocrite, don’t criticize others when what you are doing is as bad or worse. If you lack discernment, the person you are leading is going to fall into a pit along with you.

Before becoming too discouraged by this, though, it’s helpful to bear in mind here that Jesus has his reasons for leaning harder on his disciples—and on us—than he has been doing. The end of his Galilean ministry is in sight and soon Jesus will be on his way to Jerusalem and the crucifixion. In the Gospel this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, he will continue to urge his disciples to avoid hypocrisy as he does here—pray and give alms in secret, not in order to receive praise. And next week, he will be leaning on himself to resist temptation as well, going into the desert for forty days to fast and pray.

But even now, it’s not all entirely discouraging, because at the end of this week’s Gospel Luke begins to talk about trees. Now admittedly his discussion of the trees is a bit more black and white than some of us may find entirely helpful: bad trees, bad fruit. And the crucifixion itself will take place on the wood of a tree in six weeks or so. But trees also produce good fruit, as Luke goes on to reminds us,

We actually already encountered this tree-based flash of hope in today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Sirach, —even before Jesus begins warning the disciples about hypocrisy in the Gospel reading. At first, this  earlier reading doesn’t seem a lot more encouraging, nothing more than a sort of prelude to the Gospel’s discourse about hypocrisy: just as  the refuse remains after a sieve is shaken, and what comes out of a person’s reasoning shows who she is, so the fruit of a tree —good or bad—discloses the kind of cultivation a tree has received.

But the Book of Sirach, sometimes called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, is, at least according to the Catholic Church, part of the Wisdom literature of the “Old Testament.” But the Jews don’t consider it part of their Scriptures, and most Protestant denominations don’t either. But Catholics do. And one real advantage to including Sirach in our Scriptures, and thus in the lectionary, is that it includes some theologically important, and beautiful, passages about Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom who vastly expands our vision of God. And one of the most powerful representations of Sophia/Wisdom in the Book of Sirach is Sophia as a tree.

So just after this passage in Sirach in which we encounter a fairly limited representation of a tree, one that only bears good fruit if it is cultivated properly, we hear of the glorious Sophia who has ”taken root in a privileged  people,…grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as tall as the rose bushes of Jericho…I have spread my branches like a terebinth…Approach me you who desire me and take your fill of my fruits.” (Sirach 24:1-14).The author of the Book of Sirach knows well that with Sophia much more is possible than sieves full of refuse or the bad fruit of bad trees or, for that matter, from hypocritical disciples.

Indeed, in a few weeks Luke’s Jesus himself will move on from his sermon to the disciples about good and bad fruit to a far less binarized parable, this one about the owner of an orchard who orders his gardener to cut down a fig tree because it has borne no fruit for three years. But the gardener convinces the owner to give the tree another year so he can cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.

And then just before the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus tells us an even more inspiring  parable, in which, just as we know that summer is near when  we see the fig tree and every tree in bud, so when the disciples see the things happening that Jesus has been telling them about—signs in the sun and moon and stars, the clamor of the ocean and its waves, –we will know that the kingdom of God is near.

So when Luke goes on later, in Acts, to speak multiple times of Jesus who was slain and hung on a tree, he knows very well that there is more to expect from trees than death and fruitlessness. And so should we, as our Savior, the fruit of the tree of the crucifixion rises up before us on Easter morning.

Let me conclude with a question. At this time, when the dead wood of the cross seems to be everywhere:  with  the Trump administration demonizing our Latinx sisters and brothers and tearing their infants from the  breasts of their mothers; when that same administration, by abandoning crucial treaties, has moved the nuclear doomsday clock closer to midnight than it has been since 1953; and when the United States has withdrawn from global climate change agreements, thus moving us even closer to environmental catastrophe than we already were, what are we to do? What, for you, is the route from the dead wood of this cross to the fruit-filled tree of resurrected Wisdom?

 

 

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