Sunday, January 14, 2018

Church Scandals in a Secularizing World

A religious institution can least afford scandal involving highly unethical and illegal activity when the world is secularizing; the headwind alone requires a lot of energy just to stay in place, let alone move forward. The trail of child-rape scandals and cover-ups had by 2018 made a dent in the number of Roman Catholics in Latin America, yet other factors also accounted for the declines in church membership, and thus obfuscated estimates of the fallout in particular.  I contend that the gravity of the sexual abuse and related cover-ups by clergy warrants more than just being reckoned as one of several factors, even though the actual exodus was muted relative to the severity of the crimes.
“The number of Chileans who described themselves as Catholic dropped from 74 percent in 1995 to 45 percent [in2017], according to a poll by Latinobarómetro. The decline of Catholicism in Argentina, from 87 percent in 1995 to 65 percent [in2017] has also been significant.”[1] These are significant drops, and they exist in other countries in the region too. What factors lie behind this downward trend?  The New York Times pointed at the time to increasing secularity in “prosperous nations, including Chile and Uruguay. . . . In countries in the region troubled by violence, stark inequality and entrenched poverty like Brazil, evangelical denominations have cut deeply into the historical base of the Catholic Church.”[2] Fallout from sexual-abuse scandals by priests and covering bishops was also doubtless in the mix. Such abuse by religious men in a religious organization is unlike these other factors, for neither secularity nor economic inequality is so closely associated with, and thus pertaining to, the Roman Catholic Church. The downward effect of the personal failures and indeed hypocrisy of religious functionaries, especially in a denomination in which liturgy is so important in the process of sanctification, should arguably have been more pronounced that it actually was.
To be sure, during his visit early in 2018, Pope Francis “angered Chilean Catholics by defending a bishop who critics [said] protected a pedophile priest.”[3] Victims of Fernando Karadima, “Chile’s most notorious priest,” accused Bishop Juan Madrid of complicity in the crimes. The pope stated that “there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”[4] Ouch! Juan Cruz, one of the victims, had written, “As  if I could have taken a selfie or picture  while Karadima abused me orothers and Juan Barros stood there watching it all [before being elevated as a bishop by Pope Francis}.” Dismissing such an account was a good way for the pope to throw gas on a fire. “The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and adherents” in Chile.[5] From the  standpoint of Jesus’s message, hypocrisy by the vicor of Christ is not a good thing. It is telling that a spokesperson of the Chilean government was closer to Jesus’s  message in stating, “Respecting,  believing  and supporting victims of sexual abuse is  an ethical imperative. No  institutional defense can override this basic principle for a fair society, one that is empathetic with those who most need it.”[6]  Empathy with the most vulnerable is one of the pillars of Jesus’s depicted life and teachings, whereas denial in defense of  the powerful sounds more Roman than Christian.
So I ask: why, even at the time of the pope’s visit to Chile and Peru, hadn’t more Catholics walked away from the Church? Why not a major exodus worldwide after the press reports of the reason for the pope’s chilly reception in Chile?  Imperfect information is doubtless part of the explanation. The short lifespan of moral outrage even at hypocrisy combined with the sheer force of routine in the human psyche is another. Even so, I submit that the importance of taking part in the Church’s sacraments—believed by the faithful to be important to salvation—kept even disgusted Catholics in the pews.  
Most important to a Catholic’s process of sanctification—the gradual transformation into being Christlike and thus fit for full reconciliation with God—is taking Communion at the Mass, which is presided over by clergy. They are a necessary part of a layperson’s return to God, according to Catholic belief. Historically, the Church decided the Donatist controversy by declaring that the moral lapses of a priest does not invalidate his concentration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Moral and presumably even criminal faults may give rise to hypocrisy, but saying the liturgy is nonetheless sufficient in the consecration. Think of the liturgy of the Eucharist as a recipe of sorts; if said correctly, the consecration is, hocus pocus, accomplished. Whether the presiding priest was rude to someone before Mass is of no consequence. In a secularizing world, such a rationale is difficult to accept, yet Catholics socialized into the importance of attending Mass for their very salvation have a very different framework of belief. Even though that belief may be sorely tested when clergy misconduct arises, the way to salvation is held to be more important to the individual believer. In this perspective, the pursuit of salvation may appear selfish relative to taking a stand against a rapist priest or corrupt bishop by no longer going to Mass in empathy with the victims. By which of these two alternative courses does a believer become more Christlike—literally taking in the deity via Communion, or following Jesus’s example and teachings on how to live so as to enter the kingdom of God? A tough theological problem to be sure!
The sex scandals have been just one of several factors that together have doubtlessly been perceived by the Vatican as just another headwind that the long-lived institution will doubtless survive as it has survived other set-backs and challenges. Relativizing a current scandal by assuming a two-thousand-year perspective wrongly presumes an infallible coat of armour built up by centuries of existence. That the Catholic Church—any religious institution in fact—has responded so imperfectly (or not at all) is a testament to the human nature involved. Yet this is no excuse. The instinct for greater accountability within the Church is of course valid, for the ongoing need of a clergy so consecration can continue to be done does not justify retaining child-rapists and corrupt bishops who cover up the heinous crimes. For example, the Vatican could remove the rotted clerics and seek replacements. Lest it be objected that bending on the issue of clerical marriage would be inconvenient, the close tie between the Church and the crimes and cover-ups suggests that an inconvenient course-change is called for—that suffering costs due to external actors rather than one’s own volition is insufficient as payment by the institution. Such internal accountability is difficult, given the conflict of interest in an organization being tasked with voluntarily taking a hit (rather than merely taking a hit due to the actions of external actors, such as laity giving less financially). The laity and even the societies within which the Roman Catholic Church exists need not accept such institutional self-serving inertia.  Taking the road less convenient is something clerics ostensibly for agape (i.e., self-emptying) love should not have to be pressured into taking. Perhaps more Christians are needed in the Vatican, and fewer comfortable hypocrites in sheep’s clothing.

1. Daniel Politi, “As Pope Heads to Chile and Peru, Argentines Feel Snubbed Again,” The New York Times, January 14, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Marcelo Rochabrún and Pascale Bonnefoy, “Pope Leaves a Furor in Chile, and Later Defends the Indigenous in Peru,” The New York Times, January 20, 2018.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.

On how Church leaders might lead, see Spiritual Leadership and Christianized Ethical Leadership. On the secularization of the Church historically in terms of how wealth has been viewed in relation to greed, see God’s Gold.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Megachurch Pastor and Sexual Assault: A Compromised Christian Leader

“A Memphis megachurch pastor received standing ovation during a church service on Sunday after he admitted that he had engaged in a ‘sexual incident’ with a high school student 20 years ago in Texas.”[1] That the woman had made the man’s prior misdeeds public just days before throws into doubt whether the pastor deserved the ovation by his loyal flock. Prompted by the firing of Matt Lauer, the anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, the woman emailed the pastor more than a month before his public acknowledgement at his church; he had not responded to the woman’s email to apologize. Letting his flock in on the secret hardly added much value to the man’s character, for damage-control is not laudatory. The standing ovation connoted not only praise on the man and a revalidation of the pastor’s continuance as a religious leader. That a Christian leader could be validated as such, rather than invalidated and thus shown the door, throws into question the integrity of religious leadership itself.
What is distinctive about specifically religious leadership? Moses is a distinctively religious leader because in the story of Exodus he follows divine decrees in leading his people out of Egypt and handing over ten basic laws. That five of them are moral in nature means that moral infractions can legitimately count against religious leadership in the Abrahamic religions. Yet the Book of Job tells us that God is not bound by what we take as ethical; omnipotence cannot be limited by anything, including moral commandments applicable to us mere mortals. As Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling suggests, religiosity can seem absurd from the lower perspective of morality. Following the divine decree to sacrifice Isaac is not murder in religious terms, yet the act would be highly unethical as murder in terms of ethics and public legal justice.
Morality and theology are clearly distinct, yet at the same time related. This is why assessing the impact on the ethically-sordid pastor’s religious leadership is so difficult. In Christian terms, morality is salient in the preaching of Jesus. Yet love as agape (i.e., divine self-emptying) and even as caritas (i.e., human love directed to loving God) do not reduce to morality. In directing the girl to perform oral sex on him and touching her naked breasts twenty years before his acknowledgement, the then youth minister had not only acted immorally, but also violated the sort of love that Jesus exemplifies and preaches in the Gospels. That sort of love, being theological in nature, cannot reduce to moral or even emotional love; religious love as depicted by Jesus is God itself, as Augustine and Calvin emphasize in their respective writings. What is theological love as distinct from moral and emotional love? The self-emptying aspect of agape love provides an opening, yet not even the metaphysics of divinity voluntarily self-emptying of itself reaches the distinctly theological.
To decide whether the pastor’s religious leadership was compromised or outright deflated, the nature of theological love must first be known—in this case, as depicted and taught by Jesus. That the youth minister had not followed the Golden Rule is a good indication that in acting selfishly at the expense of the high school student, he had violated a divine decree on love, or God itself. Furthermore, in refusing to atone, the man had for twenty years (or more) kept himself reconciled with the woman and thus with God, and thus he remained at a distance from God. That the public acknowledgement was predicated on the woman making the incident public suggests that the pastor remained unreconciled in his heart, and thus with God. The standing ovation, giving the pastor a pass, thus suggests that a religious congregation can be misguided regarding not only morality, but also the very nature of religious leadership itself.

[1] Matthew Haag, “Megachurch Pastor Admits to Illicit ‘Sexual Incident’,” The New York Times, January 10, 2018.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pope Francis: Possessing Nuclear Weapons is Indefensible

Pope Francis said late in 2017 that the nuclear arms race had become irrational and immoral. The irrationality itself rendered even just the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral, according to the pope. Whereas past popes had recognized deterrence as a legitimator, both irrationality and the extent and “upgrading” of such weapons were factors in Pope Francis’s admittedly personal view. Yet was his basis only moral, or religious in nature? 
With “such sophisticated nuclear arsenals,” the pope said, “we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least a big part of it.”[1] The proliferation of the weapons is relevant here, even in the pope’s answer to what has changed: “Irrationality is what has changed.”[2] Surely irrationality is a staple of human nature, rather than appearing all of a sudden in 2017. The pope must have had in mind the reckless rhetoric exchanged by the North Korean dictator and the American president. Unfortunately, even a large, established nuclear power, an old cold-war warrior, can allow for irrationality even though institutional safeguards exist as checks. But as time goes on and leaders come and go as weapons proliferate as well as become more powerful, we can conclude that the psychology of human nature is itself too weak. 
Ethically speaking, the harm that could befall a significant portion of humanity from nuclear bombs renders the possession thereof as immoral, given the element of irrationality in interpersonal and thus intergovernmental relations. But is the objection also religious in nature? If our species is made in the image of God, then destroying a part or all of the species can be said to be condemnable on religious grounds. The Catholic doctrine of humanae vitae can be taken in this sense, rather than that human life itself is sacred, which could be reckoned as a self-idolatrious claim. We have a spiritual nature—an innate yearning for the transcendent.[3] To expunge this nature is condemnable on religious grounds.
The pope can thus be criticized for having based his opinion on a moral position rather than going on to use the occasion to preach on the distinctly religious element (or grounding). A species that can not only conceive of transcendence beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, but yearn for it even though it remains beyond is also that species that can so easily lose perspective in altercations and lash out irrationally such that much harm is done to the species or a part thereof. If we are angels, a saying goes, we must be killer angels. But must we be? Are we not also capable of exerting will-power, self-discipline, especially if we can be watchful and hold in check powerful individuals who are in the sway of irrational emotion? Or is the proverbial cat out of the bag, with no one willing to destroy the most powerful weapons? Will time eventually catch up to our sorry species?

1. Francis Rocca, “Pope Calls Nuclear-Arms Growth Illegitimate,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. This point enjoys considerable space in my book, Spiritual Leadership

On the Place of Religion in Business: Refusing to Serve Gays

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 2017 in a case on whether a baker in Colorado had been justified in refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. He claimed that his Christian faith forbid him from making wedding cakes for gay couples. “I follow Jesus Christ,” he declared when interviewed at his store. The Gospels are silent on the issue of homosexuality—it being said to be a sin only in the Old Testament—so the inference that following Jesus requires opposition to gay marriage (not to mention that homosexuality is an important issue in following Jesus) can be questioned. If the inference is tenuous, then it is the baker’s ideological stance that was actually at issue before the court. More broadly, is religion vulnerable to acting as a subterfuge, or cover, for what are really personal prejudices?
In terms of constitutional law, the baker contended that the First Amendment, “whose guarantees of free speech and religious exercise supersede any state law, exempts him from [Colorado’s] antidiscrimination act,” which has covered sexual orientation since 2007.[1] The question, I submit, is whether free speech and religious exercise are salient in a business context. 

The full essay is at "Refusing to Serve Gays."

[1] Jess Bravin, “Supreme Court Set to Hear Gay-Rights Case,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2017.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Greed and Christian Ethics in Profit-Seeking

In his 2011 Easter sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued an outspoken attack on the greed consuming the world’s civilized nations. Speaking against the rush for oil, power and territory, the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams argued that the comforts and luxuries that people take for granted can not be sustained forever. He forecast that civilization itself would one day collapse from the over-production and consumption.  

                             The Archbishop of Canterbury (The Telegraph)

Williams laid the root of the excessive acquisitiveness at the doorstep of the fear of death. “Individuals live in anxious and acquisitive ways, seizing what they can to provide a security that is bound to dissolve, because they are going to die. . . . Whether it is the individual grabbing the things of this world in just the repetitive, frustrating sameness that we have seen to be already in fact the mark of an inner deadness, or the greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires - enough oil, enough power, enough territory - the same fantasy is at work. We shan’t really die.” Relentless activity in the world of business is our way of forestalling the thought of our own coming non-existence.  It follows that “(w)e as individuals can’t contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilization, like all others, will collapse.”  Therefore, we take our comforts and luxuries for granted and ignore the warning signs that they cannot be sustained indefinitely.

In short, the West defines itself in terms of ceaseless activity geared to acquisition without limit—as though a fatted calf stuffing itself for dear life—in order to keep the inevitability of an end at bay. Hence, we identify ourselves by our functions, as in “I am a banker,” rather than by our respective natures, which exist in idleness as much as activity. In fact, it may only be in the silence of a holy night that one can come face to face in the darkness with oneself, unfettered by one’s vocation.

Whereas the Archbishop’s sermon focused on greed inherent in excessive acquisitiveness, the Easter message of the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev Nazir-Ali, discussed the immorality of the financial markets in terms of financial inequality. As reported in The Telegraph, “The bishop said that high-earners such as City traders and company directors must swap their desire to ‘make a quick buck’ for a commitment to share their wealth. Bishop Nazir-Ali blamed the turmoil in the world’s financial markets on amoral forces and warned that one of the ‘great disparities’ of our age was the gap between rich and poor.” Even though capitalism necessarily makes use of people unequally according to particular efforts, talents, and resources, the greed of the “haves” need not be utilized in ways that exacerbate the inequalities such that the “have nots” are left without the means of sustenance. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, the bishop charged, "The turmoil in the markets is almost certainly the result of such forces.” Indeed, the greed of irrational exuberance pushes the gap to such an extent that volatility can destroy the market from within.

Accordingly, the bishop urged: “Those with power need to ensure that the poor are not disproportionately affected. What is required is a change of heart, of disposition, of attitude. . . . From possessiveness we need to move to gratitude for what we have, from 'cutting corners’ to make a quick buck to that integrity for which business in this country was celebrated, and from mere accumulation of wealth to a generosity of spirit. . . . When that happens, hedge fund managers and directors of companies can indeed go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders." This statement is a departure from the rich man getting into the kingdom of God being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle—a view that was dominant in early Christian thought. The bishop’s thesis that generosity can deliver even a rich person harkens back to the salience of the virtues of liberality and magnificence that were dominant in the Christian thought on wealth in the late Renaissance. Such is the distance within the history of Christian thought on wealth in relationship to greed (on this shift, please see my book, God's Gold available at Amazon).

Because generosity requires wealth in the first place, the bishop was assuming that the link between earning wealth and greed is mitigated or even eliminated by charity (the root of which is caritas, which means sublimated human love) of part of one’s wealth. Although involving virtue, this approach is less idealistic than the earlier stance in which even pursuing wealth was assumed to be tantamount to being greedy. In other words, the bishop’s stance is more worldly because it allows for some profit-seeking and wealth-holding (as long as they are accompanied by the virtue of generosity rather than the vice of selfish acquisitiveness sans limit). Even so, the stance is quite idealistic compared with the greed that nearly brought the financial markets to collapse in 2008. The question is perhaps whether generosity amid profit-seeking and wealth-holding is sufficient to restrain the ceaseless productive activity for still more.


Jonathan Petre, “Archbishop of Canterbury Attacks Western ‘greed’ in Easter sermon,” The Telegraph, April 24, 2011.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christian Leadership Navigating Geopolitics: Pope Francis in Myanmar amid Ethnic Cleansing

With the U.N. having “denounced the murder, rape and pillaging of the Rohingya in western Myanmar as ethnic cleansing,” Pope Francis had to “strike a careful balance” during his visit to the country in late 2017 “by maintaining his moral authority without endangering his tiny local flock.[1] Even the decision to meet first with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of the military that had “driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country” could be taken as a compromise of the Pope’s moral authority because Francis would met with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the next day.[2] That the local Cardinal had urged the Pope not to even use the word Rohingya during the visit pointed in the direction away from the Pope acting as a moral compass and thus to a hit to his reputation as a leader of principle rather than expediency.
Considering the salience of agape, or self-emptying love, in Christianity, the spiritual virtue should be in the Pope’s leadership even in the context of national and global politics, especially if on behalf of a persecuted group. Was not Christ himself persecuted? Furthermore, a history of Christian martyrs suggests that compromising for the sake of one’s self or organization enjoys little legitimacy. To gain the whole world and yet to compromise or lose an opportunity for spiritual leadership in a secular, sordid context—evading talking truth to power—has an anti-Christian resonance that can deplete a Christian leader’s reputational capital.   
The institutional self-protection that an organization tends to engage in can rationalize all sorts of antithetical conduct, including protecting clerics who rape children. Are not such children worthy of protection even if the institution itself bears the brunt? What then of a persecuted religious and ethnic minority? If Christ evinced love where it is not convenient, then Christian leaders should be protecting other religions even more than Christianity itself. Paradoxically, only in such a way can Christianity really thrive, for being true to itself—being authentic rather than self-serving—is true strength, whereas expediency evinces weakness.  

[1] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis Arrives in a Myanmar Tarnished by Rohingya Crackdown,” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Religion and Politics: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Helped Syria’s Assad Regime

In the wake of yet another Syrian massacre of civilians, including families being shot at close-range in their own houses, the New York Times published a report in 2012 that claimed that Russian priests and theologians commiserated with diplomats from Damascus at the opening of an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin. While it is understandable that the Kremlin would not want to lose its “longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East,” it is perhaps less palatable for Christian prelates and doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church to essentially look the other way on atrocities so the Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, won’t be pushed under the bus in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that could be unleashed should Assad fall from power. The Syrian Christians were reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad for fear of being persecuted by the Sunnis should they gain power.

                                     Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church                                  NYT

The full essay is at "Russian Patriarch Helped Assad."