Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | February 27, 2013

Benedict, Go in Peace

untitledTomorrow night at 8 o’clock in the evening (Rome time), Benedict XVI will no longer be the visible head of the Catholic Communion. He joins a club even more exclusive than the one he has been in since April of 2005. He will be a retired pope. The Vatican has announced that he’ll be known as “pope emeritus,” that he’ll continue to wear a simple white cassock and be addressed as “your holiness,” but without his trademark red shoes. Those, it seems, are the privelege of the reigning pope.

Conspiracy theorists are having a hay day, but I see this for what it appears to be: an elderly man is stepping aside because he can no longer adequately function in his role as leader of more than a billion Catholics. It’s a daunting job, even for a younger person. His characteristic stoop has grown worse in recent months, he moves more feebly, and his eyes often seem more distant, reflective. He suffers from heart problems. His doctors want him to cease his travels.

As Ignatius of Loyola once suggested, even bishops die. Yes, and that includes the bishop of Rome. It has been announced that Benedict will be flown by helicopter tomorrow night to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence in the hills outside the city. Then he plans to return to Vatican City in a couple of months when his retirement villa is renovated. There he will probably live out his days in mostly quiet solitude, along with Contessina. She is the cat who has already taken up residence. His presence will continue to be felt, especially as the cardinal electors gather to choose his successor. I suspect his health is worse than we’ve been told, however, and that his time in retirement will be short.

John Paul II taught us the lesson of perseverance. His death was a very public one. The world watched as he steadily declined. He faced his own demise as stubbornly as he dealt with members of the clergy and the bishops with whom he disagreed. Benedict is teaching us a different lesson. Life in this world ends for us all, popes included. The papal office is a job that one takes up and then puts down. It is not necessary to wait for Death’s arrival in order to leave office with faithfulness.

If the Catholic Church is unsure of how to handle a retired pope, it’s not just because there have been so few. It’s also because of the mythology and near-divinity that accompany the office. Popes once claimed to be the Vicar of Peter. Now they prefer to be styled as the Vicar of Christ himself. They once claimed ecclesiastical power mostly for Italy, now they claim juridical authority over the entire Christian Church–with or without the cooperation of the rest of the world’s Christians!

In 1296 Pope Celestine V resigned from office after only five months and eight days. He had been a hermit who lived his life in prayer. Elected to the papacy, he attempted to flee. A delegation of cardinals convinced him to accept the post but he was miserable. The next pope, unsure of how to handle a retired pope, had Celestine placed in prison. He died there.

It is interesting to note that in 2009, Pope Benedict visited the tomb of Celestine V. He left a papal vestment on the glass coffin in which the former pope is interred. One must imagine that he was struggling with the question of his own resignation even then.

Strictly speaking, no one is elected to the papacy. He is elected as the bishop of Rome. By virtue of this fact he is accorded the prerogatives of the papal office. This is confirmed by the fact that if a layman, deacon or priest is elected (something that is allowed by Canon Law), he cannot assume the powers of the office until he is ordained a bishop. In the Church’s ancient theological tradition, it is baptism and ordination that make an indelible mark on the soul, not the assumption of papal office.

That mark, or change, cannot be taken away, even if one abandons the faith. Catholics do not “reordain” or “rebaptize.” An ordained person is always ordained. A baptized person is always baptized. But a pope is not always a pope. The papacy is an office held by a particular bishop. In stepping away from that office, Benedict will continue to be a bishop but he will not be the bishop of Rome. He will not be the pope. He may still enjoy certain papal honors (along with excellent healthcare and helpful staff), but the powers of the papacy will no longer be his to exercise. And that is the point.

The pope is not a king. Nor is he an emperor. For all the Catholic hopes that Christianity may one day be reunited, the papacy does not serve this longing by acting in ways more common to royalty than to the simple Savior from Nazareth. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the world’s Catholic bishops joined with Pope John XXIII to initiate what some have called “the faithful revolution” against the ecclesiastical imperialism and excessive centralization perpetrated for centuries by popes and Vatican bureaucrats (known as the Roman Curia). Vatican II sought what Pope John called aggiornamento, an “updating” of the Church and a new dialogue with the world. Metaphorically opening the doors and windows of the Church, they recognized that God is at work in the world and not only in sanctuaries. And they knew that power is not the same thing as goodness.

They recognized that the Church teaches the world. But as Judge John Noonan reminds us in his book A Church That Can and Cannot Change, sometimes the world teaches the Church a thing or two as well.

Contessina the cat.  Benedict's new roommate?

Contessina the cat. Benedict’s new roommate?

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger–the man who is pope for one more day–was present at the Second Vatican Council as a peritus, or theological expert. At times he disagreed with both the “progressive” and the “conservative” parties at the council and even afterward. He has left a considerable mark upon the papacy and the entire Catholic Church. It is difficult for some (including me) not to believe that his interpretation of Vatican II has been a bit of a march backward. Still, his theological expertise has allowed him to be open in some ways that John Paul II never considered.

There is much talk about the next pope. There is even wild apocalyptic speculation that if Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is elected that the eschatological prophecies of St. Malachy will be fulfilled (I place that speculation in the same category as concerns about the Mayan calendar). It’s easy to find online, so I will leave my readers to enjoy that material elsewhere.

Once Benedict has coptered out of Vatican City, final preparations will begin to fall into place rapidly with regard to the papal conclave that will elect his successor. There is no need for the official nine days of mourning. We can expect a new pope before the end of March. Then we can ask where the Spirit may be leading the Church. And we can speculate anew on how well the pope is listening.

One thing is certain, even in Catholic dogma. The Spirit speaks not only through the Roman Magisterium (the hierarchical leadership of the Church). She also speaks through the people of the Church. The “teaching Church” (Ecclesia docens) and the “learning Church” (Ecclesia discens) need each other. These two components of the Church represent dynamic poles on a spectrum; they are forever in motion. They interact in the mystery that is the Spirit’s presence in the Church.

Sometimes the people learn from the hierarchy. Sometimes the hierarchy learn from the people. John XXIII was aware of this. Perhaps the next pope will understand it as well. Infallibility, when properly represented, is not a characteristic so much of the papal office as the Church itself. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us, the Church is the People of God. And that category is a bit bigger than the Roman Magisterium.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | December 30, 2012

Other Catholics

Church_YardAs this blog’s header proclaims, James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake that “Catholic means here comes everybody.” There was a time when I would probably have scoffed at that assertion. Then I read a book entitled The Catholicity of the Reformation edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. It reminded me of the important truths I learned in my seminary days about the Protestant reformers. Clear-cut dividing lines between what’s “Catholic” and “Protestant” or between what’s considered “conservative” and “liberal” might make us feel better, but finding the truth often requires us to go beyond such labels.

If we take history seriously, along with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), it seems true that there must be other types of Catholics than just Roman Catholics.  “Catholic” comes from a Greek adjective meaning “universal” and “together for the good of all.”  Early Christians applied it to the church; our earliest written example comes from Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, in the first decade of the 2nd century.

Identifying Catholics who are not Roman, there are arguably at least three usages:  Christians in union with the Holy See (the pope) whose rituals are not of Roman origin, Christians of Orthodox Churches, and Reformation Christians who profess the Nicene Creed.

Because the Latin (Roman) Rite is most widespread in Catholicism, many are unaware that there are thousands of Catholics in union with Rome whose liturgical ritual is derived from other locales.  The Eastern Catholic Churches to which they belong are autonomous, or self-governing, and they have their own canon (church) laws.  Their worship traces its historic development to Egypt, Syria, Armenia, or Constantinople rather than Rome.  Latin-Rite Catholics may be surprised by the differences in liturgy, but are welcome to partake in communion because of the ecclesial and sacramental unity we share through the Chair of Peter, the papacy.

What this means is that while we’re all Catholics in union with Rome, we have some definite differences in how we worship. There are often other important differences with far-reaching cultural significance, such as whether or not priests can marry and whether leavened or unleavened bread is used in the eucharistic sacrifice. It’s a vital reminder that union doesn’t rest upon uniformity. It suggests that ecumenical unity could be fostered and advanced even in the midst of some profound differences.

One can also validly describe as “catholic” the Christians of the Orthodox Churches.  Though not in union with Rome, their sacraments and apostolic succession are considered valid by the Holy See.  As with the original use of “catholic,” the word “orthodox” first served as an adjective that marked a quality of the church itself.  The church was catholic by its universality and orthodox because of its true doctrine.  The one Church of Christ, in east and west, was therefore catholic and orthodox.  One of the greatest hopes of Pope John Paul II was to recover the unity of eastern and western Christianity, the “two lungs by which the church breathes.” Perhaps he should be the patron saint of this cause today.

Although it may prove controversial to some, those Reformation communities who honor the Nicene Creed also profess themselves to be catholic.  This includes Anglicans and Lutherans, among others.  Our various doctrines may cause us to argue about the characteristics and sacraments of the Church of Christ, but we agree in professing this church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”  Among the reformers it was often an appreciation of the church’s catholicity that caused them to differ with Rome.

To these three categories perhaps we should add another group of Catholics, those particular churches that have broken with Rome due to unfortunate historical misunderstandings but who continue to profess essentially the same faith as Roman Catholics. In this category we can place the Polish National Catholic Church (headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania) and the Old Catholic Churches of Europe. Their sacraments and orders are considered valid by Rome, though the practice of ordaining women among Old Catholics is not recognized by the Holy See.

Catholicity is a cosmic reality.  The universality making us catholic is applied not only to the church but the entire created order.  As the bishops at Vatican II stated, we who are in union with the pope understand the Church of Christ to subsist (endure, continue on) within the Catholic Church, but we have no monopoly on divine grace.  “Many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside” the visible confines of the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8b–also known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).  Insofar as any human community enjoys the blessings of these elements of sanctification and truth, it can be considered catholic, at least to a degree.

A similar and shorter version of this article in the August 2012 edition of US Catholic magazine.  To view it, simply click HERE. If you enjoy this blog, please recommend it to friends.

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden/ 

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | September 30, 2012

Social Justice

ID-10012481“Justice” is such a simple concept, and it’s probably one that reasonable people are willing to grant as a necessary prerequisite to a better world.  But it’s also a topic of great debate.  Even more important, it’s terribly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Let me get this off my chest.  As far as I’m concerned, speaking both on a personal level and as a Catholic theologian, all justice is social.  From the viewpoint of Jews and Christians, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26).  That means that our very essence, what it means to be who we are, is imbued with a dignity that comes not from what we do, or what we think, how successful we are, or even from the authority we may happen to wield, but from the fact that we have been gifted into existence.

Recognizing this dignity, it makes sense that there are certain requirements regarding the way that we relate to others.  From the gospel it’s clear that Christians should find the primary meaning of justice in the practice of love.  And what is love?  As I have said in a previous post (drawing from the insight of Fr. William O’Malley, SJ), love is a conscious and active commitment to another person’s well-being.

At the present time there seems to be a great debate taking place in American society regarding the requirements of social justice.  To be completely honest, I’m not entirely happy with either side of this debate.  Political “conservatives” sometimes mock the notion of social justice altogether while political “liberals” often speak as if they have a monopoly on just living.

If I love you, if I’m committed to your well-being, then I must be concerned when you are hungry, ill, abused, neglected, lonely, or marginalized.  Your welfare is my responsibility insofar as I am able to assist you.  To the question of the murderous Cain (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) we must answer “yes.”  Reflecting on this idea, several points come to mind.

1.  Living justly requires me to interact with others in a particular way.  That’s why all justice is social in nature.  But when we hear people arguing today for a better world, they usually seem to be telling other people how they should live and what they should be willing to sacrifice.  See the problem?  The gospel doesn’t say “somebody should do something.”  It also doesn’t say that we should take from the rich to give to the poor.  It commands me to be committed and to act upon that commitment.  That, dear friends, is the challenge.  Of course it’s much easier to tell others what they should do and what they should be giving up.

2.  There are many ways to foster justice in the world.  No one can do everything, and there is not always just a single right response to the call of justice.  In addition, the requirements of justice can change from one situation to another.  The Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) seem to have understood this when they wrote the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes].  In Sec. 78a of that document they duly noted that the concrete demands of the common good are always changing.  This means that our work is never done, but it also means that there is more than one way to accomplish the task of building a just world.

3.  Working for a better world doesn’t always mean the giving of alms (donations of money to help the poor).  Charitable giving has a long and noble tradition in Christianity, but it shouldn’t be understood strictly in a monetary sense.  There are many ways to give of myself, and not all of them are obviously related to the church.  I can serve as a school aid or tutor, visit the sick or homebound, take a course in CPR, volunteer for a radio reading service, work for a political campaign, or serve on the board of a charitable organization.  These are what I might call “extraordinary” ways of being just.  Others come as ordinary, unplanned opportunities:  helping a busy mother with her tax preparation, mowing grass for an elderly neighbor, sending a sympathy card to someone who has lost a loved one, doing a bit more than is expected at work, or taking the time to listen when a coworker is stressed.  An old proverb says that “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”  Challenging myself to live justly is better than preaching to others about justice.  Human ego being what it is, however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing fingers.

4.  Eschatological hope saves the church from being blinded by unrealistic hopes for earthly Utopia.  Let’s break that down into simpler terms.  Eschatology has to do with the final outcome as God has it planned for the cosmos.  The Eschaton is the ultimate culmination of all things.  The word itself is taken from the Greek word eskatos, referring to things that are remote or last.  Catholic doctrine maintains that the ultimate arrival of divine justice is something that won’t take place until the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.  That is not understood as an excuse for delaying or ignoring the work of justice, but it does remind me that it’s not entirely up to me.  There are limits to what I can accomplish; I should not lose heart because of this.  Nor should I put unrealistic or unjust expectations upon the work of others.  There are far-reaching, often negative political consequences to Utopian mythologies.  A healthy eschatology helps to avoid many of those unhappy tendencies.

5.  Complaining about injustice–especially with an eye to the injustice perpetrated by others–isn’t enough.  As a college professor, I get to hear lots of discussion among faculty and staff about living justly.  I also get to see lots of attempts to organize our students for protesting policies and institutions judged as unjust.  Catholic colleges are doing a good job turning out protesters, but I’m not sure we’re producing all the clear-thinking prophets we need in order to address the difficult work of genuinely bringing about a more just world.  Please believe me when I say that there is a place for protest.  However, protesters and prophets are not always synonymous.  We’re called to do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).  Sometimes we’re so eagerly seeking something to stand for that we overlook the ordinary, simple things in life that we can do all the time to build more dignified and just relationships between ourselves and others.

In the end, it’s up to me.  (It’s also up to you, but I have no control over that.)  If I’m spending more time telling others how to live justly than acting on justice in my own life, something is wrong … way wrong.  I don’t have to look for ways to live justly.  All that’s required is that I show up and do it in a thousands ways every day while interacting with those who cross my path.  If I don’t see those opportunities then my eyes are closed and I miss a chance to light one small candle.

The really neat thing about small candles is that they are easy to light if I’m paying attention.  When I add mine to yours, a whole new clarity comes to our vision of the world around us.  “You” added to “Me” produces “Us.”  That’s the foundation for justice, and justice is always about “Us.”

Let me end with another quotation from Gaudium et Spes:  “It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life” (Sec. 30a).

Can I have an “Amen” to that?

Photo courtesy of Michelle Mieklejohn/

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | August 2, 2012


ID-1006420According to recent reports, the Vatican is renewing its efforts to ensure that all Catholic theologians have a “mandate” (mandatum in Latin) as a prerequisite for teaching theology in Catholic colleges and universities.  The requirement is found in Canon Law (Can. 812) and is backed up by an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as the papal encyclical entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae.  Many fine theologians have voiced concerns about the mandate.  Leaders of some Catholic colleges have made it mandatory for all theologians while others have recognized the problems associated with the issue and have allowed it to fade into the background.

As I have long suspected, there are those in Rome who do not wish to see the issue take a “back seat” at all.  In an address to American bishops on May 5th of this year, Pope Benedict took the time to mention it.  Regarding the “distinctive identity” of Catholic higher education, the pope noted that “much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines.”  For  him, the mandate (mandatum) is a “tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity” between the church and its theologians in light of “the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence” that sometimes crops up between theologians and the hierarchy of the church.

Now we have another voice from the Vatican weighing in on the issue, none other than Cardinal Raymond Burke.  He is prefect (person in charge) for the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Roman church’s highest judicial panel).  Burke is an American prelate and former archbishop of St. Louis.  He recently spoke by telephone with representatives of the Cardinal Newman Society to offer his comments on the mandate.  His comments give us an idea of the mood in the Vatican with regard to theologians who don’t possess the mandatum.  Bishops wishing to be seen favorably by Vatican officials will undoubtedly follow suit.

In his comments, Cardinal Burke did not mince words.  He was direct and clear.  In summary form, it might be stated like this:  every theologian teaching in a Catholic college or university must have the mandatum.  If he or she does not have it, students and parents have a right to know.

Sadly, there are many in the church today who misrepresent this issue.  It is too causually presumed by many that theologians with the mandate teach genuine Catholic doctrine while those without it do not, but a mandatum doesn’t make a good theologian any more than a marriage license makes a good marriage.

Cardinal Burke wants parents and students to know about it when a theologian fails to secure a mandatum.  Perhaps he’ll support the idea that they should also know why.  There appear to me to be several good reasons why a Catholic theologian of integrity might not seek a mandatum from his or her bishop.

1.  Since the mandatum is a juridical statement recognizing communion with the church, a Catholic theologian might find it objectionable that it must be requested.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) guidelines for the academic mandatum state that a theologian in communion with the church “has a right to receive it and ecclesiastical authority has an obligation in justice to grant it.”  Presumably, if a bishop has evidence that a theologian is not in communion with the church he does not need to wait for a mandatum request before making it known to school authorities.  It would seem to be much more sensible to grant a mandate to every Catholic theologian upon being hired by a college or university unless evidence is readily available to invalidate it.  The USCCB guidelines appear to justify this stance by stating that “right intentions and right conduct are to be presumed until the contrary is proven.”

2.  The mandatum does not recognize the theologian as able to teach in the name of the church.  It is not “an appointment, authorization, delegation, or approbation of one’s teaching by church authorities.”  It does not make a theologian into a catechist; theologians teach in their own name by virtue of their academic competence and in line with their baptismal obligations.  In light of these admissions by the American bishops, a Catholic theologian might argue that no other recognition is necessary.  He or she might even go further and propose that the academic mandate, since it comes from a bishop, is a form of hierarchical intrusion upon the rights of the baptized to exercise a valid lay apostolate as explained in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], issued by the Second Vatican Council.

3.  According to church hierarchs, the purpose of the mandate is to assure the teaching of authentic Catholic doctrine and the prevention of presenting as Catholic teaching anything that is contrary to the church’s magisterium.  A Catholic theologian might point out that only a person lacking in integrity would knowingly misrepresent Catholic teaching.  Requesting a mandate from the bishop can do nothing to change this.  A Catholic theologian might also point out that there is a distinction to be made between “the church” and “the magisterium.”  There are even moments in ecclesiastical history when great saints were faithful to the church while being unpopular with (and even punished by) the magisterium.

4.  A Catholic theologian, even one who desires the mandatum, might rightfully point out that an unjust imbalance remains a component of church law at this time.  When a negative opinion of a theologian’s work is determined by a bishop, the USCCB guidelines call for efforts at mutual understanding and dialogue between bishop and theologian.  Nonetheless, as recent history has demonstrated, ecclesiastical power remains entirely on one side of the debate when a theologian is doubted.  The church’s hierarchical magisterium retains the power not only to legislate unilaterally, but to question, condemn, and judge theologians who have little recourse except to appeal to the very same magisterium from which the original judgment was derived.  A Catholic theologian of great honesty and integrity might rightly point out that this imbalance has too easily led in the past to abuse by bishops who are not theologically astute.

5.  Precisely because a theologian possesses great integrity, he or she might be in the difficult position of having to point out deficiencies in the doctrinal formulations of certain members of the magisterium.  Critical assessment such as this is the vocation of a theologian, even when it brings the disapproval of the hierarchy.  The tension arising from the relationship between bishops (as chief catechists) and theologians (as critical assessors) seems inevitable, though each of these vocations is in need of the other.  A Catholic theologian of integrity might point out while refusing the mandate that theologians were once understood to be part of the magisterium.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the magisterium has two “chairs”:  the pastoral chair of the hierarchically ordained, and the teaching chair held by theologians.

It would be a healthy development to see this doctrine reclaimed and reinvigorated so that controversial theologians might receive a fair hearing in the contemporary Church.  Until then, some men and women of great integrity just might refrain from requesting the one-sided mandatum.  Sometimes the best way to change the rules of the game is to refuse to participate.

Should bishops challenge theologians?  Yes, assuredly.  That’s part of their job.  Should theologians challenge bishops?  Definitely.  It’s also part of their job, even when it looks like “apparent dissidence.”

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden/

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 25, 2012


ID-10057735Here’s a brief exercise for you.  Before reading further, do an image search for the word “love” on your favorite search engine.  I used Google, but I’m sure your results will be similar to my own.  The vast majority of images returned for your search will undoubtedly suggest that love is a feeling.  Not only is that a disastrous misunderstanding, but it’s one that has far-reaching consequences for Christianity and for civil discourse as well.

If love is all about the feelings we have for one another, we may all be sunk!

This is especially important for Christians since Christ himself is shown in the gospels as commanding his followers to be people of love.  At the level of essentials, Christianity appears to have one ultimate law with two parts:  to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12: 30-31; Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:27).  As a Jew of the first century, Jesus would have derived this two-pronged commandment directly from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

If we Christians take our religious commitments seriously, it seems that we had better determine what love is.  Otherwise we risk being a failure in response to the Master’s command.  But what does this entail, exactly?

William O’Malley, a Jesuit theologian, gives us a workable answer:  “Love is a conscious and active commitment to the well-being of others.”  Conscious because it begins in the brain as we recognize our responsibility to others.  Active because it requires that we do something.

I can’t speak for you, but most of the time I can’t control how I feel–about persons, or events, or even about myself.  But I am able to control my response to my feelings, and that’s where love enters the picture.  The gospel command to love isn’t a command to feel good.  Love isn’t an emotion; it isn’t a feeling.  Love may be accompanied by emotions, even strong ones, but it must transcend those.  Emotions come and go.  Love, as the Apostle Paul reminded us, “endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7), even our topsy-turvy emotional states.

If Fr. O’Malley is correct about this (and I sincerely believe from years of reflection and teaching that he is), then what are the consequences?  Well, for one, we are freed from the misguided notion that we must only say and do those things that make everyone feel good.  We are liberated from the slavery of thinking we’ve failed the gospel mandate simply because we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings.  Jesus had strong things to say to people at times.  I’m willing to bet that there were folks who walked away from his comments with considerable emotional bruises.

Another good consequence of this insight is that we can abandon the silly notion that Christians aren’t called to make value judgments.  Again, if we look at the example of Christ found in the gospel accounts, we see that he made such judgments all the time:  about things he believed to be good or bad, sinful or not, and about things wholesome or unseemly.  What he cautioned his followers about was the tendency in humans to make judgments about the ultimate worth of other persons, their eternal value or status in the sight of God.

Jesus appears to have been a person of profound integrity and authenticity.  If we have a problem with someone’s actions or words, I think he would demand that we go to that person and express ourselves directly, even fervently if the situation calls for it.  He would insist upon honest dialogue, the two-way conversation where both parties genuinely express themselves and their concerns but where they also seek to hear the viewpoint of the other.

Sometimes this means sharing difficult issues with another person, perhaps even risking hurt feelings.  On the other hand, it can also mean that we might realize our own mistake in the matter with the necessity of apologizing and moving on from our misunderstanding.  In all of this, the main point can’t be to convince, conquer, or shame someone else–but to do what is truly in the other person’s best interest.

O’Malley’s definition isn’t perfect.  There are a million other things that can be rightly said about love.  But the definition at least gives us a clear perspective on what it is that we are called to do.  We don’t live in a fairy tale where everything always turns out well, and we don’t always have good feelings for everyone and every situation we encounter.  It’s not necessary that we cower and hide our strong feelings about religion, politics, or society.  Quite the contrary, if we are committed to the well-being of others, we will often find it necessary to speak boldly and with passion.

So what should we do with our feelings?  Relish them.  Take note of them.  Learn from them.  But don’t be controlled by them.  Whether you’re dealing with your friends, your spouse, or your co-workers, the truth is that the web of human relationships can be difficult to master.  When confused, calmly remind yourself that love is a commitment to another person’s well-being.  Your job is simply to ask how best you can advance that person’s best interest.

Or, as Augustine wrote, “Dilige et quod vis fac”–“Love and do what you will.”  What a great way to sponsor catholicity, the “working together for the good of all.”

Photo courtesy of zole4/

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 15, 2012

Pope John XXIII: Patron Saint of this Blog

John-xxiii-2Being a lifelong Catholic, and appreciating the human need to make meaning from our experiences as I do, the tradition of patron saints just feels “right” with me.  I realize that tradition isn’t as comfortable a fit with all Christians as it is with Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox and others, but I think it’s in the realm of our nature as a species to identify people who serve us as role models.

There is a debated passage of Christian scripture located at Colossians 1:24 that may help to demonstrate my point.  Though this particular epistle is probably not directly from the apostle Paul, it reflects his influence.  In the cited passage we encounter a curious reference to Paul’s suffering as a way of making up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the church.

Along with Paul and his first-century followers, Christian theology is generally shy of allowing any imperfection in the work and suffering of Christ.  So what could this passage mean?  I prefer to think that its meaning is related to historical reality.  Jesus of Nazareth–whom Paul and his followers understood to be the “anointed one” of God, the Christ–was but one person in human history.  The redemption he wrought may have no limits, but the particulars of his historical reality certainly did have limits.  He came in time, to a particular place, a particular culture and religion, and with what might adequately be called particular self-imposed limitations.  As a man, he could not be a woman.  As a Jew he could not also be a gentile.  As the son of a poor family, he could not simultaneously be rich.

The ugliness of Christ’s suffering may have no limits in the beautiful results it brings to the cosmos, but there are forms of suffering which he did not experience.  Perhaps the author of Colossians is alluding to this with his comment.  If it can be true for suffering, can it also be true for positive examples?  Can Christ remain the divine agent par excellence, the master teacher of all teachers, the perfectly-obedient son of God, while still leaving room for the possibility that the example and effort of others may strike a chord in our hearts so yearning for examples by which to live?

Yes, I believe so. And for a blog entitled Less Roman, More Catholic, what better example and patron can I invoke than Blessed Pope John XXIII?  It was John–baptized Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli–who announced the Second Vatican Council shortly after his election as pope.  It was to be an ecumenical council, the highest authoritative body in the Catholic Church.  His announcement came during the 1959 Week of Christian Unity.  That was no coincidence.

The announcement was not just a surprise, but a shock to the Roman ecclesiastical establishment or Curia (the papal bureaucracy).  A man of tremendous goodwill and overflowing humility, Roncalli knew that it was time to update his beloved church.  As he spoke it in his native Italian, it was time for aggionamento.  The windows and doors of the church had been closed long enough to the grace of God in the world, and the fortress mentality had reigned too long with regard to ecumenism, interreligious understanding, and religious liberty.

He was elected as a “transitional pope”–someone of advanced age who was expected to refrain from rocking the boat, and in this case that boat was the barque of Peter!

He was also a trained historian with an in-depth understanding of church history and doctrinal development.  He was a Vatican diplomat with experience among Muslims in Turkey and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria.  Rather than allow human failings to lead him to despair and retreat, Roncalli seemed to greet the world as a grace-filled horizon of divine possibility.  His intentions met resistance immediately.  It came from within his own papal organization, the curia.  There had not been an ecumenical council in almost a hundred years, and that previous council had promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility.  Many in the Roman Curia believed that future councils were unnecessary in light of this development.  Roncalli proved them wrong.

With assistance from this affable pontiff, a new breeze was blowing in the Vatican.  It would soon break from those medieval walls and bring changes to the Catholic Church, demolishing ideological barriers that prevented dialogue with the world.  John set the stage in his opening speech to the council on October 11, 1962.  This was to be a council of openness, not condemnation, of possibility instead of crisis.  A pope of largesse and goodwill wanted to talk to the world; he wanted his fellow Catholics to have that opportunity as well.  It so frightened some Vatican bureaucrats that the first version of the speech printed in L’Osservatore Romano  (the Vatican newspaper) left out portions considered to be problematic by those whom John had labelled “prophets of gloom.”

The council met for four sessions, in the fall of each year from 1962-1965.  After the first session ended, but before the second could begin, “good pope John” was dead from the effects of stomach cancer.  He had expected to call the council, but he surprised himself by living long enough to open that council.  His successor would be Paul VI, Giovanni Montini, whom John had made a cardinal.  Montini would continue the council but would pull from discussion the difficult issues of mandatory priestly celibacy and artificial birth control.

A favorite story of John XXIII is a great way to end this post in his honor.  During the Second Vatican Council, official observers were invited to be present.  These included ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities.  They could not speak during the debates, but they were treated with great respect and had access to the bishops between daily sessions in the Basilica of St. Peter.  (This itself is remarkable if you remember that the last time a dissenting cleric attended an ecumenical council he was burned at the stake; that was Jan Hus at the Council of Constance in 1415.)

It is documented that at some point during the council John XXIII had a conversation with a Protestant bishop who was present as an observer.  “Your holiness,” the bishop wondered aloud, “when do you think we will be in communion together?”

“My dear bishop,” replied the pope, “you and I are already in communion.”

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 14, 2012


This past week, on Thursday evening, I had a most remarkable experience.  Allow me to provide some background information.  I serve as co-chair of the Trialogue of Mobile, Alabama, a grassroots group of folks mostly of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) who gather four times annually for face-to-face conversation about our beliefs.  We’ve been doing this nearly three years now, with our first event bringing in 160+ members of the community; turnout continues to be high and participation is energetic.

Meetings normally take place on the campus where I am employed as an associate professor, at Spring Hill College.  In April we had our first organized gathering at a synagogue, Ahavas Chesed.  This past week we visited Mobile Masjid of al-Islam.  (For those who may not know it, as I didn’t know until Thursday, “masjid” is a derivative from Arabic while “mosque” is derived from French.)  These events were outstanding, and well attended.  Both congregations (the Jewish and Muslim) were profoundly hospitable in their welcome.  I simply cannot express the sense of honor and gratitude that wells up within me as I consider the kindness and warmth of these two congregations throwing open their doors and hearts to the visitors associated with Trialogue.

Both communities are remarkable, but one in particular stands in bright contrast to the cultural difficulties, ideological battles, and extremist violence in which it is enveloped.  Obviously, I’m referring to Islam.

Personally, this was my third visit to Mobile Masjid of a-Islam, and I have some news to share with you.  If you want to meet a sincere, welcoming, and inclusve group of Muslims, you need to make a visit for yourself.  If you want to know where the Muslims are who condemn all forms of violence and terrorism, you need to drop by the masjid on Duval Street in Mobile.  If you want to meet devout men and women who would probably more willingly suffer themselves than inflict suffering upon others, you should spend some time in their midst.  If you wish to know patriotic Muslims who love their country, including some of whom are honorably discharged from the United States military, stop by the Mobile Masjid of al-Islam.

Forgive me if I’m starting to sound like some sort of religious advertisement.  That’s not my point.  It’s not my intention to idealize this Muslim community.  But I do want to celebrate what I’ve discovered there, and what I’ve found among Muslim friends not only from al-Islam, but from other Muslim groups in the larger Mobile area.

As an autonomous Islamic organization, the congregations of al-Islam are composed predominantly of men and women of African ancestry.  But their message is inclusive and universal, which I perceive to be a product of their own internal struggles as a community.  I believe that their experience is indicative of the Islam that will eventually emerge as predominant in North America and in Western Europe:  respectful of differences, comfortable in the midst of religious diversity, and productive in its ways of supporting the community and providing political leaders.

As the imam of Mobile Masjid of al-Islam pointed out the other night, he and his congregants are often frustrated by what they see in the news media.  When broadcasters in the US want to talk about Islam, they too often find a radical Muslim immigrant on the American street who speaks with a heavy accent and who is angry about our national politics.  Yet there are thousands of native-born American Muslims who love their country, support its democratic values, and who would never force their own religious convictions upon their neighbors.

He quoted a favorite verse of mine from the Qur’an.  In the 49th surah (chapter) we are told by God that we have been created into nations and tribes not to despise one another, but that we may know and understand each other.

Of course, quoting such a passage from the Qur’an doesn’t remove from Islamic history the wrongs of the past anymore than quoting Jesus on the virtues of love removes the painful past of Christianity.  But it does suggest a new starting point.  Combined with the blessings of interreligious friendship and genuine mutual understanding, it challenges us to build a new relationship of trust where neither side wants victory over the other.

Those of us who are not Muslim would do well to heed this message.  Islam is not going to disappear.  Like all organized religious communities, it has a mixed past of triumphs, tragedies, peace, and violence.  Those realities continue to play out on the global stage.  We can continue in our ignorance and condemn all Muslims and all Islamic history, or we can look closer to gain a more accurate view.  We can neither change the past nor predict the future, but we can embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters who desire to live in harmony with us and who respect our own religious convictions.

If you doubt me, spend some time at the masjid on Duval Street.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 4, 2012


“Let’s talk.”  It’s such a simple idea, and heaven knows that today we have many opportunities for it by way of social media.  Sometimes, even via Facebook or Twitter, we just scream at each other.  We often have no interest in what another person has to say on a subject.  We may take conversations too far afield and at other times ignore the parts of a conversation we don’t appreciate.

Last night I happened to see a carload of people unloading in front of a restaurant.  Two kids jumped out of an SUV.  They were full of energy and excitement but the three adults with them were all glued to their portable devices (i-pads and cell phones).  It seemed they couldn’t appreciate the moment.  I regularly see couples who are physically together, but socially disjointed as each is busy communicating with somebody at a distance by way of their electronic gadgets.

In addition to this theological blog, I also write another which is dedicated to political issues (  Though I try to keep the topics of the two forums separate there is overlap at times.  It was Mahatma Gandhi who reminded us, “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”  He is remembered in India with the affectionate name of “Gandhiji.”

All things human are necessarily political.  Politics is nothing more than the practice of navigating our way through the myriad relationships of human society, and negotiating systems of power exercised by individuals and groups.  Someone once suggested to me that I might have a problem with authority.  I don’t think that’s quite right.  What I have is a problem with power.  I’m not referring so much to the personal power that each of us possesses as a reality of our personhood, but power that is exercised by groups of people who bond together for the control of others and for the purposes of limiting the options and creativity of others.  My wariness (and weariness!) concerning the exercise of power is a product of my Christian faith and personal experience with the reality of original sin, the brokenness which marks all humans, all human endeavors, and every human institution.  In short, if it’s true that humans are frail and imperfect, so too their political institutions (whether those institutions are governmental or ecclesiastical).

Where there are two or more humans there is politics, and this applies to churches as much as general society.  While I am vividly aware of the imperfection that marks all things human, I’m aware of the unlimited potential for good that is also present.  My catholicism causes me to think of this as the presence of the divine, or holy Spirit–universally active in every community and religion on earth.  Sin can lead to pessimism.  The Spirit can lead to optimism.  I choose to be a practical optimist.  Like the hotelier in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I choose to believe that things will all work out in the end.  If they haven’t worked themselves out, it must not be the end.

Organized communities must have leaders; leadership implies the exercise of power.  But what is our philosophy of power?  I subscribe to a philosophy which is known in the church as subsidiarity and which is known in the governmental arena as libertarianism.  In other words, power should be exercised at the closest social level that is possible.  Issues should be dealt with locally.  If possible, on the personal or familial level (in some societies this would include tribally).  Power is best kept in check when it is devolved to the “lowest” possible level.  My presumption is that we don’t need a law for the entire church or the whole country when an issue is a local one,  not even necessarily when local communities are facing the same questions.  One question can have multiple valid solutions.  Universal, top-down dictates (from popes or presidents) often have the result of stifling creativity and limiting healthy options.

Disagree with me if you like, but at least give me credit for being consistent.

This consistency puts me in the odd position of being called a “liberal” in theological circles, but “conservative” in political discussions.  It also causes me to wonder aloud about the news commentators who are so quick to condemn the centralized power in the Catholic Church while adoring the centralized power exercised by the federal government of the United States (as long as their preferred political party is in power).  If, as Lord Acton wrote, “power tends to corrupt,” and “absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” wouldn’t all communities be better off by keeping a check on the accumulation of power?  Nothing breeds revolution or schism quicker than abuse of power.

On the other hand, nothing dispels fear quicker than genuine dialogue and the sharing of power that can accompany it.

As Nicholas Sagovsky has written in Ecumenism, Christian Origins and the Practice of Communion, “conflict is integral to life in community.”  It’s inevitable everywhere that people are found together.  There is simply no way around it, though we often prefer to imagine that conflict doesn’t exist at all.  We should not mistake silence as the absence of conflict.  Here is another gem of wisdom from Sagovsky:  “It is not the presence of conflict that is unhealthy for communal life, but the premature suppression of conflict in the interests of an unauthentic unity.  Serious, impassioned conflict, where the protagonists are committed to apparently irreconcilable positions, is characteristic of humans living in community” (bold emphasis is mine).

It should not surprise us or anger us that others have differing opinions–and that they are passionate about their beliefs and value commitments.  One of the most beautiful characteristics of postmodern (“pomo”) thinking is its renewed appreciation for local values and ideas.  I like that alot.  It’s very catholic.  There is nothing more workable than two people seeking mutual understanding.  Their disagreements may persist, but the very act of seeking mutual understanding is a transcendent one.

Sometimes dialogue can lead to argumentation.  That’s not a bad thing if the argument is handled respectfully.  After all, the etymology of our word “argue” comes from Latin arguere, meaning “to make clear”.  If we argue because we want to understand each other clearly, then arguing can be a very good thing indeed.  Far too often, however, we’re afraid to enter the dialogue (or the debate or the argument) because we know strong feelings accompany strong commitments.

It’s not unusual to hear passionate debaters say that “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”  That’s fine, but it’s certainly not noble.  What is noble is when we continue to be engaged in dialogue despite the disagreement.  If we don’t remain in the dialogue the result can be more intervention from the top.  Local issues can be pushed upstream and can eventually land on the desk of those “higher ups” who patrol the halls of power.  Too often, in my opinion, their commandments function as ultimatums.  In religion or government, when it comes to an ultimatum, there is always a price to pay.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 21, 2012

It’s (Past) Time for the Roman Church to Ordain (More) Married Men

The energy is palpable.  People are excited.  Married Episcopalian clergymen are coming to the Catholic Church and being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.  On the first day of this year Pope Benedict XVI established the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter for Episcopalians in the United States who wish to join the Catholic Church while continuing to retain the distinctive spirituality and liturgical traditions of Anglicanism.  About a year before, the pope established a similar ordinariate for England and Wales.

The relationship between Rome (home of the papacy) and Canterbury (home of the primate of the English Church) is long, contentious, occasionally tense, and quite fascinating.  Augustine of Canterbury (not Augustine of Hippo) is remembered as the first to head that diocese back in the sixth century.  Sent by Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine is remembered as “the Apostle to the English” and he is credited with the establishment of the church in Britain.  But there was already a Christian presence in the British Isles, which has come to be known as the Celtic or Ionian Church.  Perhaps this was an ominous sign of things to come.

Cardinal Reginald Pole was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be in union with the See of Rome.  He died in 1558.  An exhausting debate has ensued about whether or not the sacraments and priesthood of the English (Anglican) Church are valid.  As far as Rome is concerned, the issue was settled in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull entitled Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void.”  According to the decree, the primary problem with Anglican ordinations (and therefore also Anglican sacraments) is defect of intention.  In other words, the English bishops who broke with Rome did not intend with the ordinations they performed to do what Rome intends and understands ordinations to accomplish.  Ergo, Rome can’t recognize Anglican orders or sacraments as valid.

It’s not all that simple, at least not to the theological mind.  There are Catholic bishops and theologians who disagree.  But many Anglicans (in the US most Anglicans are Episcopalians) have accepted the notion of questionable orders themselves.  Episcopalians, like others in the worldwide Anglican Communion, are embroiled in controversies like the ordination of women and of gay clergy.  Many are looking to Rome for certitude and stability.  Admitting married clergy from the ranks of Episcopalians and even Lutherans is nothing new, but the widespread preservation of Anglican distinctiveness in Catholic liturgy is a fairly new twist, and a welcome one for those coming to Rome from Anglicanism.

I find myself with feelings of ambiguity.  I am happy to welcome into the Catholic Church those who feel called to join at our eucharistic table.  But if they are looking for a perfect community, this certainly isn’t it.  Many Catholic theologians would argue that Rome has still never formulated an adequate reason to deny ordination to women, and we have plenty of gay clergy in our own ranks.  If Episcopalians are swimming to the shores of Rome because they are comforted by the policies of the present pope on such issues, what will happen if a new pope offers divergent approaches?

And what about the thousands of former Catholic priests who have left active ministry in order to marry?  Officially, they are not even allowed to serve as eucharistic ministers or lectors in their parishes.  In my opinion it is both unjust and unwise to refuse them a path to return to sacramental ministry simply because they are married.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 21, 2012

The Joy of Catholicity

Ah, sweet catholicity … how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

Hoo-hum, you might be thinking, here’s another blog about the Catholic Church.  Perish the thought!  What you have before you is not a blog about Catholicism but a blog about catholicism.

Ask just about any parochial school kid about the definition of “catholic” and you’ll get the pat answer:  “catholic means universal.”  Yes, that will work.  But it means so much more than that.  As explained by my former mentor, theologian and educator Thomas H. Groome (author of What Makes Us Catholic?), the roots of the word are Greek and can be intepreted to mean something akin to “working together for the good of all.”  Everything in the natural order is catholic.  The cosmos itself is catholic.

Catholicism is a way of life.  It’s an attitude, a vision, a paradigm, and a way of being human.  It’s much more than a religion.  It’s too big, too rich, and too filled with grace to be limited to only one particular community of faith.  Even the bishops of the Catholic Church recognized this while gathered at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), considered by Catholics as an ecumenical council–the highest level of teaching authority found in the Catholic Church.  Boldly, the bishops proclaimed that “many elements of sanctification and truth” are to be found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church.  That proclamation, my dear reader, is truly an example of catholicity in action.

A review of history, however, suggests that Catholic leaders have not always been so generous in their understanding of divine grace.  The impulse toward catholicity has often been overshadowed by romanita’, an Italian word suggesting that Roman power and culture almost always have the upper hand.  Ideally, Rome should be the preserver of all that is truly catholic.  But it seems more accurate to suggest that there is an historical tug-of-war taking place between what is Roman and what is catholic in the church.  Rome usually wins, and we are reminded of this fact by the ancient maxim:  Roma locuta est, causa finita est (“Rome has spoken, the matter is closed”).

Before I am accused of all sorts of vile things regarding the Catholic Church (my church!) and the papacy, let me point out that even the church’s own tradition recognizes this tug-of-war.  On one hand, the Bishop of Rome holds powers in the church that are nearly absolute (executive, judicial, and legislative), yet one of the most basic of doctrines and canonical principles for the Catholic Church is that of subsidiarity (the belief that issues and problems should be dealt with on the most local level possible).  Furthermore, though I have characterized the two impulses as being engaged in a form of competition, that is not a bad thing.  The tension that arises from the sometimes combative relationship of the two can be a source of tremendous creativity and vitality.

Catholicity calls for openness, expansion of limits, recognition of the universal horizon that marks divine grace, and allowance for the Spirit to maneuver as she wills.  Romanness calls for decisions to be made, limits to be set, ecclesiastical offices to be filled, and lists to be made of those who are approved or excluded.  I realize we can’t be a community without some form of order.  But we can’t be Christian if we don’t pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Balance is needed.  The name of this blog should indicate to you whether or not I believe we’ve found it.

Welcome to the journey.  I’m eager to walk with you and I look forward to your comments along the way.

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