Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Basketball Coach as Theological Guardian?

So there I was taking my mid-morning break scanning the ESPN webpage for news about my favorite team, when I see a story that made me wince. No, it wasn't another story about Michael Vick. Instead, it was a story that positioned a college basketball coach as Catholic spokesperson. When does a college basketball coach have to take on the public role as theologian? Rick Majerus, who coaches at St. Louis University, a Jesuit University, was recently asked what his views on abortion are.

It makes me uneasy that a college basketball coach is asked to make public statements on his personally held views concerning faith and morals and these statements should become fodder for public debates about the Church especially among the folks who read ESPN. I shudder to think what Jim Rome is saying about all of this.

The journalist who asked Majerus about his Catholic faith and his stand on abortion was trying to stir it up and create a story by raising an issue that strayed beyond the coach's professional office. The journalist succeeded: it did become a story, all right, but for what end? It's no news to learn that there are practicing Catholics whose faith is complex and multifaceted. Ask any Roman Catholic out here about doctrines and teachings and you'll find a lot of people who fail the litmus test if "official" church teaching is the standard....just start asking about the Death Penalty. There are more than a few "faithful" Catholics who protest against abortion and support capital punishment. Chances are you'll even find them among coaches and players of the NFL and NHL, but that wouldn't be as interesting for journalists to write about. The journalists writing for ESPN are really not interested in religion, the challenges of living a life of faith, or about the Catholic Church (or any other church). They're just interested in stirring up trouble and dropping it. Thanks.

But my real concern with the story, though, is with the actions taken by the archbishop. Why should an archbishop take the bait and make a public statement on Majerus's statement and assert that no Roman Catholic should hold such views? As much as I respect a bishop's role in "watching over his flock," taking an authoritarian position is not the best pastoral position to take among intelligent, thoughtful people these days. It was the archbishop's statement that made this story news. A coach's personal views would have remained private and un-news-worthy without the archbishop's statement. All those impressionable students at SLU who haven't given much thought to the elections would never have heard what their basketball coach thinks had the archbishop taken up his concern directly and privately with the coach, himself.

Instead he took a heavy-handed approach and went to the university's president and made a public statement to the press.

It reminds me of an art exhibit that ended up earning fame and some notoriety in Chicago during the winter months of 1995/1996. "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary: Feminist Views of the Blessed Virgin Mary," would have had a quiet and relatively insignificant run at WomanMade Gallery except that some offended Catholics (who had heard of some of the pieces but who had not seen the exhibit) wrote to Cardinal Bernardin who, without visiting the gallery and seeing the exhibit--i.e., without engaging with the ideas and the poignant concerns of the artists--issued a public statement condemning the exhibit. That public statement made the news, and every day after that for the remainder of the run of the exhibit, the small, sleepy gallery was full of people. I know. I caught the exhibit, but only found out about it because of the press the cardinal gave it. The gallery made money and sold lots of video tapes and even some pieces...all thanks to the added unintentional publicity from the Cardinal.

The assertion of clerical power without respectful dialogue inspires ridicule and drives people away. After everything that has happened among the clergy in the Catholic Church in recent years, the ordained at all levels--whether they be newly ordained deacons or long-standing archbishops, cardinals or even popes--need to start from scratch and earn the respect of both those of us in the pews and those of us who shun the pews. Their authority has been so depleted of integrity, asserting clerical power, as if it is widely respected, is misguided.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The virtue of poverty?

Practitioners in many religious traditions, not just Christianity, uphold asceticism and poverty as virtues to cultivate, since it is presumed that one is less likely distracted by anxiety, desires, and fear if one has nothing--or at least very little--in the way of material possessions. One is able to focus more clearly, even more purely, on the Divine or merely on presence when one isn't worrying about how the stock market is doing.

Even when I was an adamant agnostic, I admired those spiritual leaders who embraced poverty as the path to enlightenment. Francis of Assisi stood out in my mind as a model of someone who stood up and rejected middle-class expectations of affluence that was built up by constant concern for business ventures.

But now at 46, having already outlived the life-span of Francis of Assisi and looking down the road at retirement I wonder about this quest for poverty. While I am content with many of my career choices, in which I always considered compensation secondary to personal fulfillment, I am reevaluating other choices related to how I spend money, and even more so, I am reevaluating the amount of work I am willing to do without compensation.

When one works for the Church or in fields related to spiritual growth, one is often asked to offer time and talent for little or no financial compensation.

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't relate to ministry, per se, but it does highlight the story of someone who has no money at 61. And it makes me consider one of the arguments I make in my classes: lay people in the church are often fed models of the spiritual life that were originally developed for vowed religious, i.e. monks and nuns, who while taking vows of personal poverty, still lived within institutions with corporate wealth that provided for the sick and elderly. Those of us who work for some religious organizations today are often paid under the market value for our labor and we receive fewer benefits than secular organizations offer.

The cautionary tale of the woman who opened her home to lots of people, but who had not a penny saved is the script of the life story awaiting many of us choosing the "spiritual life." And I wonder about its wisdom. Is it fundamentally a selfish life to choose a life of poverty so that one is dependent on state support as one ages or becomes seriously infirmed?

Kenneth Baxter Wolf dismantles the sentimentalism of Franciscan poverty in The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis Reconsidered. He argues that Francis could have done more to help the real poor in concrete ways had he sacrificed his idealism (read: selfish idealism) and embraced the middle-class life his father wanted him to inherit.

It takes a lot of material resources to live one's ideals. As a follower of Gandhi wrote, "If the old man only knew how expensive it is to keep him in his life of poverty."

Friday, January 11, 2008

When did "Christian" become a bad word?

Among many of the people I consider to be casual social friends, the term "Christian" is thrown around disparagingly, the term "Catholic" even laughingly so. These conversations, which are admittedly uncomfortable for me, make me wonder, "When did the word 'Christian' become a bad word?"

The attack isn't so foreign to me. I used to disparage church life. I still sometimes shudder when I hear someone say, "Jesus" as in a pious announcement such as "Jesus wants me to do x, y, z." I can much more easily hear Jesus' name invoked in passionate explosions, such as "Jesus H. Christ, why the hell...."

So what better way for me to come to terms with this dilemma than to teach at a seminary and graduate school of religion? Every day I get to consider questions that cut into the very core of who I am and who I am becoming: How could anyone in their right mind, after all, believe in the Immaculate Conception? How could anyone belong to an institution whose leaders have tacitly supported the sexual abuse of minors and women? Why would a feminist choose to become Roman Catholic especially when women are not allowed to be ordained?

In short, how could you? How could I?

What I write here are my personal thoughts and observations. I welcome comments and ideas. I request that if you disagree with me heatedly, keep your comments respectful. No flames. We're all in this together....just searching a little each day.