Monday, August 27, 2018

Roman Catholic Abuse Scandal Puts Cloud Over All Priests, all of Christianity

Things are unfolding quickly in the Catholic church, what with the new allegations against Pope Francis. Writing a weekly column means playing catch-up; this was written after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

In light of the scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S., what can one say? Words like sorrow and sadness for the over 1,000 victims of sexual abuse by about 300 priests in six dioceses in Pennsylvania seem wholly inadequate.

What about those who, for decades, covered it up? That’s much easier: Words like anger and rage come quickly to mind.

That’s the sentiment one easily finds when reading reports in both the church press and mainstream media.

“It's impossible to step into the sickening whirlpool of that Pennsylvania grand jury report . . . without feeling angry,” wrotelong-time U.S. religion reporter Terry Mattingly.

Some of the details in the report are so vile and lurid they would have been rejected from the writer’s room of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” says Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at National Review.

Awful, disgusting, horrifying, sickening—one runs out of adjectives in describing the actions of abusive priests chronicled in the just-released Pennsylvania grand jury report,” addedJesuit priest Thomas Reese for Religion News Service (RNS).

Just as disconcerting, he added, “is the failure of many bishops in the early days of the crisis to respond appropriately to the abuse. The best you can say about them is that they should have known better.”

Why didn’t they know better? The most obvious reason was the wish to avoid scandal, to keep up the pretense that the church was better and more holy than it really was, or is.

This is something all faith groups have done, to their detriment. The scale of the problem might not be as bad as what is happening to the Catholics, but every group has experience with covering up problems—including, sadly, sexual abuse.

But this particular moment belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. They are the ones on the hot seat today. They have much to answer for, and many people to answer to.

One of those groups are their own priests, many of whom are feeling the impact of this scandal.

There are over 400,000 priests in the world today. The vast majority do their jobs quietly, decently and with dedication to their faith and their parishoners.

Only a tiny fraction have committed crimes against children, like have been revealed over the past number of years.

Today, as I think about those crimes, in Pennsylvania and other places, I wonder how those many other priests are doing, and how they are handling being unfairly vilified for the actions of a few.

Imagine how betrayed and angry they must feel not only at the perpetrators who have tarnished their profession, but also at those in the hierarchy who covered it up.

As Fr. Phillip W. DeVous of Kentucky put it on Twitter: “I read the papers or catch the evening news and I see cardinals and bishops that I know for a fact are lying with impunity deploying weasel words and fake emotions.”

He expressed gratitude for the media, noting that without it “the bishops would still be lying, obfuscating, and making asinine and entirely forgettable remarks about economics and immigration while ignoring corruption, abuse of power, criminal carnality, abortions procured by predator priests, systemic homosexual predation, pedophilia, sexual harassment, and rape  in their own ranks.”

It must be hard for many priests to go to work each day, wearing their clerical garb in public, knowing how so many people feel about the actions of their church.  

Let’s hope what happened to Fr. Goyo Hildalgo of Las Angeles doesn’t happen here.

Writing on Twitter right after it happened, he posted that he was walking in a store when “someone yelled at me, ‘pedophile priest’ . . . I am still paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do or say.”

Those of us who aren’t Catholics might be tempted to ignore the scandal—not my church, not my problem.

But just as acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam tar all Muslims around the world, this scandal puts a dark cloud over all of Christianity, and maybe also over all of religion.

Right now the ball is in the court of the Catholic Church, and especially with Pope Francis.

If that church wants to move forward, it will need to confront this darkness head-on—for the sake of those who were abused, for the sake of all those innocent clergy who are now swept up along with the scandal, and for the sake of all who consider themselves to be people of faith.

From the August 25, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Want to Boost Self-Esteem for Girls? Hire More Female Clergy

In 1990, my church—River East in North Kildonan, part of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches—was the very first church in that denomination in North America to hire a woman to be its lead pastor.

At the time, the decision was very controversial. But eventually there was a change of hearts and minds, and it was decided women in the denomination could lead churches.

At the time, I was glad for the women who now could follow God’s call in their lives to be pastors.

Later, when my children were born, it was great to know they were growing up seeing it was normal for women to be clergy—especially for my daughter.

It turns out there was another reason why this was a great idea: Seeing women in leadership in religious groups is also good for the self-esteem of girls.

That’s the conclusion of a new book She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern Americaby Benjamin Knoll, an Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and Cammie Jo Bolin, a Ph.D. student in political science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Oxford University Press.)

In the book, the authors indicate that research has consistently shown that positive adult role models contribute to the health, education, and overall well-being of young people. This includes learning about gender roles.

“When children see a behavior modeled exclusively by men or by women, they internalize that behavior as distinctly masculine or feminine,” they say about the world of business, politics and other places of work.

“The more children see positions of power occupied only by men, the more they come to think of leadership as an exclusively masculine role.”

This, they add, can “implicitly generate an association between gender, leadership, and self-confidence.”

They wondered if what was true in society in general was also true in churches. Does the presence of female church leaders affect the self-worth and empowerment of girls and young women?

The answer, they say, is yes.

Based on a U.S.-wide survey of churchgoers, “one of our most striking findings is that women who had female congregational leaders in their youth enjoyed higher levels of self-esteem as adults.”

What about men? Do they experience less self-esteem if they have a woman as a pastor?

Apparently not. “Men who had female congregational leaders frequently growing up have levels of self-esteem that are just as high as those who never had a female pastor or priest,” the authors say.

Why is this finding about the effect of female church leaders on girls important?

One reason, they say, is because “low self-esteem has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety as well as lower levels of relationship success, job satisfaction, and motivation for personal improvement.”

Another is that women whose most influential leader in church growing up was a woman are likely to be employed full-time, and to advance further in university.

To the authors, this “strongly suggests” that the lack of women leaders in many churches “is at least partially to blame for the contemporary gender gap” in society.

Increasing the proportion of women in pulpits “would not only improve women’s psychological well-being, but would also likely help close the gender gap in the workplace and other positions of societal leadership,” they state.

If that’s the case, then churches have some work to do. Research a few years ago in the U.S. by the Barna Group showed that one out of every 11 Protestant pastors is a woman, and that one in five seminary students are female.

A survey by the Presbyterian Record in 2016 found that 24% of Presbyterian clergy were female, compared to 39% of Anglicans and 56% of United Church.

For religious parents of girls, what might this mean?

If you want them to grow up strong and secure, there are many things you can do to encourage them—in and out of religious services. But it might also mean choosing a church or other place of worship where women are given equal access to leadership, including preaching and teaching.

And it wouldn’t be a bad thing for boys to see that girls can do anything they want, too.

From the April 18, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Church Headed for Millennial Iceberg: Author of The New Copernicans

I had a chance to talk about church with a couple of evangelical millennials recently.

During the conversation, they expressed a deep commitment to their faith. But they weren’t so sure about the churches they attend.

The way church is being done today just doesn’t seem to be doing it for them—especially the emphasis on the sermon. Services felt too much like educational programs, with a few songs thrown in.

“I can get all the information I need about faith on this,” said one, pointing to his phone.

So what did they want from church instead?

“I want to experience the presence of God,” he said, as the other agreed.

They aren’t alone. Growing numbers of younger Christians feel the same way says John Seel, author of the new book The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church.

Seel, who directs the New Copernican Empowerment Dialogues at The Sider Center at Eastern University in St. David’s PA, uses the experience of 16th century astronomer Nicolas Copernicus as the central theme of this book.

Just as Copernicus posited the then-heretical idea that the earth revolves around the sun, today’s new Christian Copernicans see the world of faith different from what their elders are telling them.

For Seel, 65, and a father of three millennials, the book is a warning to church leaders—especially evangelical leaders—to start making space for this new way of believing.

“There is a looming cultural frame shift, largely carried by millennials, which if ignored is poised to threaten the evangelical church,” he writes, adding this shift also affects mainline churches and Roman Catholicism.

According to Seel, this shift is marked by how millennials reject enlightenment and analytical ways of practicing faith—a binary approach where things are either/or, true/false and right/wrong—to a more intuitive, exploratory, non-judgmental and inclusive approach.

It’s also a rejection of the more propositional approach to faith characteristic of so many churches, a way that starts with the head before moving to the heart and hands.

Millennials, he says, do it the other way around.

They “prioritize lived experience over abstract reflection,” he says, not the “intellectualist model of education” which many churches continue to promote today.

They are also more open to different ways to ascertaining truth, he says.

For them, faith is “an uneasy and ever-changing mix of viewpoints and perspectives . . . more opaque angles than straightforward reasons, more picture than proposition, more poetry than prose.”

Their spiritual journey is “best understood as trust, rather than merely a cognitive category associated with certainty . . . more open road than mental fortress,” he states.

If churches that still have youth want to keep them, they will need to create space for them to share their views and find ways to accommodate new ways of thinking about faith, he says—not double-down on biblical absolutes, doctrines and moral codes.

And if they don’t?

Then millennials will drift away, he states, noting that the ranks of the “nones” are already being filled by many young people who no longer feel welcome in established churches.

For me, the book resonates with my experience with many millennial Christians—and with older Christians, too.

It makes me think that being a new Copernican isn’t a matter of age; more and more Christians of all ages are feeling a sense of dis-ease about the way Christian faith is taught, promoted and practiced by many churches today.

One thing that surprised me about the book was how few references there were to the LGBTQ issue. This has become a demarcation line between many younger and older Christians, today.

When I asked Seel about that, he acknowledged it’s a key issue. But he didn’t write much about it, he said, because of the polarizing way it is framed by many evangelicals today.

To spend too much time on it would have distracted from the main point of the book, he suggested—and maybe prevented some from reading it altogether.

Another thing I wonder is how sociologists and historians might view Seel's sweeping view of history and philosophy—about the change from enlightenment thinking to how many view the world today..

Not being a scholar of either of those disciplines, it's hard for me to tell if his observations are correct.

Yet I share Seel's conviction that something is different today—something has indeed, shifted in the way many North Americans see the church and their Christian faith.

Along with Copernicus, another image Seel uses in the book is the Titanic.

Just as the captain of that doomed ship believed it was unsinkable, some church leaders today are overly-confident of the future of their way of practicing faith.

But there are icebergs ahead, Seel writes, so they better take heed of the danger.

The iceberg presented by millennials, he says, “isn’t going anywhere, the only question is how soon we will have to face it.”

From the August 5, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. 

Click here to read a follow-up interview with the author, John Seel. 

Things Are More Dire Today: An Interview with John Seel, Author of The New Copernicans

In addition to writing about John Seel’s new book, The New Copernicans, I called him. I had a few questions about the book, and about his argument that a new generation—millennials—is bringing a new way of viewing the Christian faith to the church in North America. Find that interview below.

What is the reaction to the book?

There has been positive reaction from younger church leaders. They find in the book an on-ramp for the way they view faith, a new way of being Christian that isn’t so reactionary.

Leaders of the institutional church are another story. They have not responded as positively. I think we will have to enter into a more crisis mode before those who are currently in power in the institutions of the church begin to see the need to make changes.

The book is a warning, but not alarmist. Was that a deliberate choice?

As a social scientist, I always want to be careful not to predict the future. Things can always turn out differently!

But I also felt it was best not to say “the sky is falling.” That can sometimes push people away from dealing with your arguments.

On the other hand, a lot has changed since I started writing the book in 2016. Things are a lot more dire than I anticipated. If anything, I think my tone is more moderate than reality would suggest.

You use the Titanic as a metaphor—that the evangelical church, like that doomed ship, is headed for an iceberg. What are the parallels with the evangelical church today?

I say the Titanic was sunk by hubris—the belief that the ship was unsinkable. Some evangelical church leaders may feel the same way about their denominations today, that they have the truth and they will prevail.

But that is only one part of the problem. That hubris created the conditions for the crisis that faced the Titanic. What also contributed to the sinking was the way the captain reacted to the crisis when it emerged.

If he had made a different decision, the ship would not have been sunk.

I see institutional church leaders behaving the same way. Instead of changing course to deal with the crisis, they are doubling-down on the same course.

I’m seeing organizations adopt strict and narrow statements of faith that employees have to sign. Christian colleges and universities are doing the same thing, adopting draconian lifestyle policies.

Instead of becoming more open and welcoming to the way millennials see the world and their faith, they are building bigger walls and firmer boundaries.

You seem very positive about the way these new Copernicans view faith.

I am! I think their perspective is an improvement over the way we do church today. They are more Trinitarian, incarnational, communal and revolutionary than those of us who are older. They are more like Jesus, in my opinion.

Which isn’t to say they have it all figured out, or they won’t make mistakes. But the church can really learn from them.

You wrote this book as an American, and to American evangelicals. What is your take on the state of American Christianity today?

One of the big problems in the U.S. is the belief in our exceptionalism—that we are special, the best, that we have it all together.

This makes us think we have nothing to learn from others; our borders are the biggest one-way mirror in the world. When we look at other countries, all we see is ourselves, looking back.

That makes us blind to the things we could learn from other places, like churches in Canada and Europe.

Canadians are 10-20 years ahead of us in dealing with this crisis, and the European churches are ahead of Canada. We could learn a lot from Christians in Canada and Europe, if we could see beyond our borders.

You don’t mention the LGBTQ issue much in the book. Yet that is a critical demarcation line between younger Christians and their elders. Why not?

That is a pivotal issue. The problem is that it is so polarized. I didn’t highlight it because it could have been all blown out of proportion, causing some not to read the book.

I don’t like the way the debate has been framed. Some churches and organizations have made it a primary issue. It isn’t the most important issue. Following Jesus is the most important thing, not building walls and doing border maintenance to see who is in and who is out.

I am opposed to a binary approach, that it is either right or wrong. I like the way Pope Francis responded when asked about it [LGBTQ]: “Who am I to judge?”

Personally, I am an aggressively affirming traditionalist. But I don’t want to get drawn into a battle over it.

What is your take on the situation in Canada? For example, Trinity Western University recently lost its case to start a law school.

I think supporters of TWU need to stop seeing everything in terms of liberty issues, that evangelicals are being put upon. They should stop playing the victim.

This is a huge opportunity to redefine who they are, to reach out in a new way to younger generations. Otherwise, this is going to blow up in their face.

One of the reasons schools like TWU, and other church organizations, are reluctant to change is because their donors may stop giving if they do.

That’s true, and I understand that. But if they don’t start to change, millennials will blow right past them and find other places to support when they are in a position to do so.