Hit Counter

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A revised view of natural law

     My thinking on natural law goes back to John Joe Lakers's position that human morality is governed by one of two metaphors: the metaphor of power and judgment, and the metaphor of intimacy, which he defines as passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of one person with another, or of one person with God, or of God with us. Intimacy is another word for love.

     The metaphor of power and judgment is clearly the more dominant of the two. It can be found in much of "Old Testament" scripture, and certainly in most of our criminal law. You judge whether something is right or wrong, and if it is wrong, you punish it. This suggests a behaviorist assumption of how humans operate. We act on the basis of punishments and rewards.

     JJ, in the months and years before he died, carried on a sustained attack on natural law theory. But in a sense, he is really stating that each of his two metaphors is "natural," in the sense that humans naturally operate on their basis. Therefore the attack should not be on natural law as such. There is indeed a natural law, but it has both positive and negative aspects.
     Negatively, one could make the case that human beings are structured naturally to dominate each other, even to the point of slavery, which is what slave-owners argued. Or that men are naturally sexually promiscuous, which is what some argue today. Or that men are naturally dominant over women, also argued today. We have learned, I think, that when a woman leads a professional life, she is not violating her nature.

     On the positive side, we can argue that intimacy is "natural." When one lives by that metaphor, good things happen. I might argue that humanity might never have learned the value of that metaphor had not Jesus taught it, but it might also be true that people have indeed discovered it outside of Christianity. There is no doubt, however, that for Christians, it should be dominant. "Love one another as I have loved you" is how Jesus put it. Or, "The greatest commandment is this: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

     That intimacy can be the basis of a Christian ethic is clear enough. We get into trouble, however, when we start to define specific behavior as "natural." Is it any more obvious that contraception is unnatural than that slavery is unnatural? Or that in vitro fertilization is unnatural than that male domination is unnatural? Questions like these are the reason that most social scientists reject the idea of anything being strictly "natural." For them the nature-nurture debate colors every discussion of what kind of behavior is good for human beings. To say that something is natural is to end discussion, and ending discussion is something that a scientist will not do.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The priest shortage

     What are we to do about the shortage of priests?

     Catholic laity are remarkably patient. In earlier days they endured "irremovable" pastors who were cranky, ineffective, and sometimes downright nasty. When they did not have a priest, they pestered the hierarchy until they got one.

     Catholic laity today are also patient, although some of them are choosing to exercise their patience away from the Catholic community. The reason they have to be patient is because their priests, who are getting older and older, are sometimes cranky, ineffective, and downright nasty. Not enough men are coming forward to be ordained to replace the ones that die, and the ones who do come seem to be "yes men" rather than men who can be involved with their people in vulnerable ways.

     Why aren't more men coming forward to be ordained? The two more obvious reasons are: 1) life-long commitment, and 2) celibacy. The life-long obligation may be a more important difficulty for them than the celibacy. Young people today expect to make career changes. The argument that marriage involves a life-long commitment overstates the parallels between priesthood and marriage.

     Garry Wills offers another explanation. Priests are required to defend in public things that they do not really believe. For example, no priest dares to say publicly that contraception is not sinful, even though surveys indicate that 80% or 90% of priests think that. This is uncomfortable for older priests like myself, who have been caught in the situation after we have already committed ourselves to priesthood. But I have to admit that if I were 20 years old and looking forward to taking up a role where I would have to defend things I did not believe, I would think twice and probably decline the entry.

     Sometimes I ask myself, should I publicly challenge Church teachings I disagree with? My answer: I don't have that kind of courage. Church leaders prefer to use power rather than dialog.

     I do not accuse the men who choose to be ordained of lack of integrity. I suspect that they are like I was at their age, totally committed to the Church and to its leaders, and assuming that anything the leaders say has to be true. While I would not accuse them of lack of integrity, I would judge them captives of youthful naivete. I certainly was naive in my early years.

     I also do not say that contraception is okay. Perhaps it is sinful, though the widespread use of contraceptives by otherwise pious Catholics suggests that the sensus fidelium does not see contraception as sinful. But if I were to believe that it is not sinful, I would want to be able to discuss the issue. That is precisely what Church authorities refuse to do. Who would choose to live muzzled?

     What will happen?

     Eventually I suspect that we will have a lay-led Church. So many priests will have died off that the laity will take over. We are already on the way, when there are more lay paid employees in the U.S. Church than there are clergy. Many of these laity are at least as well educated in theology as most of us priests were fifty years ago. At some point the Church will either decide to do without Eucharist or to start allowing new categories of people to lead the Eucharist. I put my money on the latter outcome.

     Probably the people who will become bishops are the men who are now entering as priests. Some of them, like myself, will change their thinking and become "liberal." Most will not. But it won't make any difference. Control will have passed to laity.

     The other factor that is likely to affect the situation is the rest of the world. Already there are more Catholics in the southern hemisphere than in the north. Some of those churches suffer from clergy shortages far worse than ours. Many of their people are every bit as "conservative" as our young clergy. But laity in their churches will be using contraception too.

     We probably won't have a Vatican III, but we don't need one. We just have to move ahead in the directions Vatican II gave us. I think the Church will do that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gay marriage

"Gay marriage" is the most recent subject of controversy in the churches, including the Catholic Church. The more liberal Christian groups, such as the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, are open to allowing gay couples to claim the status of being married. The more conservative ones, including the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholics, reject such openness.

Whether or not we can view gays as entitled to the status of being married, the crucial issue comes down to the morality of homosexual behavior. The morality of homosexual behavior runs head on into one of the clearest statements in scripture. The statement is not, as are some moral statements, limited to the Old Testament, so that Christians might claim that it has been superseded by Christ's new law. It is found at the very beginning of one of the most solidly attested New Testament documents, St. Paul's letter to the Romans. Here is what Paul says, describing the state of humanity without Christ:

           ...Therefore, God handed them [the pagans] over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the
           mutual degradation of their bodies. . . .God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females
           exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with
           females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received
           in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity. . ." (Romans 1:24-27, New American Bible

It would be hard to imagine a clearer statement of the immorality of homosexual behavior.

Yet something is happening in our societies that calls for a re-examination of this text. As they have personal contact with openly gay people, often in their own families, more and more people are coming to accept the idea that a homosexual orientation is not the result of choice but of biology. If that is so, why is it not preferable for two men or two women to live in a committed relationship with one another than for them to live without such commitment? If it is preferable for them to live that way, can the sexual behavior that will result from such living be wrong? If it is not wrong, what do we do with Paul's letter to the Romans?

The answer to that question is that we do what we have done throughout Christian history when confronted with scriptural texts that seem to go against commonly accepted wisdom. We interpret the texts as products of a specific cultural environment, not binding for all times and places. Such an interpretation of homosexuality has been done. See Daniel Helminiak's book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

We have in Christian history two other examples of how new understandings have caused the church to reject apparently clear scriptural texts: usury and slavery. Until the 1600s, Christian churches regarded the charging of interest on loans as immoral. (See John T. Noonan's book, Usury.) Until the 1800s Christian churches also existed comfortably with the idea that slavery is acceptable. There are clear scriptural texts which can be used to defend both positions. Today both positions are rejected, by Catholic as well as by most Protestant groups. Does homosexuality fall into the same category?

I think it does, but it will be a hard sell. Paul's statement is just too clear and too dramatic. Catholics are not biblical literalists, but this particular text has language that snares Catholics on another term dear to traditionalists: "natural." The females exchanged "natural" relations for "unnatural." If we accept Thomas Aquinas's grounding of morality in natural law, it will be much harder for us to interpret away this text as the product of a particular culture. Not only does the text condemn homosexual behavior, but it seems to legitimate natural law as a grounding for all morality.

I have argued elsewhere for the replacement of natural law as a basis of morality with a criterion of intimacy or love: passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement of one human being with another and with God. My argument here is that the "faithful" are using such a criterion and coming up with a different judgment of the morality of homosexuality than our traditional judgment. The sooner we get away from trying to use natural law as the grounding for our moral thinking, the sooner we will be able to engage our own culture in ways that both challenge its weaknesses and affirm its strengths. As it is now, the official Church is no more able to challenge the culture than are the Old Order Amish.

Monday, November 5, 2012


[I wrote the following essay in November 2006 as a companion to the work of John Joe Lakers, O.F.M., who uses his background in linguistic philosophy to argue for a moral discourse different from the one commonly assumed by Catholic authors.]

            In his now well-known lecture in September 2006 to an assembly of German academics at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XV repeated a hope often voiced by his predecessor, John Paul II. The hope is that the Church be able to speak to present-day secular culture in new ways. In Benedict’s words, “. . .if reason and faith come together in a new way, . . . only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

            Public reaction to the lecture centered on Benedict’s use of a quotation from a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor. The quotation accused Islam of being a religion of violence. The public reaction to the Pope’s quotation drowned out any discussion of the claims he made about reason and faith. However, Benedict chose to speak in an academic environment, and as an academic accustomed to discourse in such environments, I want to offer a critical reaction.

            Philosophical thinking since the time of Thomas Aquinas has moved in directions that call Aquinas’s synthesis into question. As Benedict himself noted in his lecture, the Franciscan John Duns Scotus already in the 14th century disagreed with Aquinas. Subsequent centuries saw Catholic philosophy develop in many directions away from Aquinas. It was only in the late 19th century that Pope Leo XIII raised Aquinas up as a model for Catholic philosophy, and baptized Aquinas’s thought as THE way Catholics ought to approach philosophy. Such a baptism hardly fits comfortably with the claim that philosophy should proceed totally without the light of revelation, in order that revelation might better be understood. The claim also sat uncomfortably with my own Franciscan seminary educators, who based their teaching on Scotus and his 14th century pupil, William of Ockham.       

            Leo’s baptism of Aquinas gave rise to the movement called “neo-scholasticism,” a movement that virtually disappeared after 1960. Secular philosophy, beginning already in the 17th century with RenĂ© Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, also moved away from medieval scholasticism. Modern thought has been shaped not only by those two figures, but also by writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. In social science, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, Sigmund Freud, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, and the rest of the immense literature in sociology and psychology have implications for our thinking about the human person. Analytic philosophy, focusing on analysis of language, and the still more recent movement called postmodernism require response from thinking Catholics, and a response based on more than the thinking of one medieval philosopher-theologian who was known in his day for the courage to enter dialogue with the “pagan” philosophers, Plato and Aristotle.

            Any true dialogue with modern culture must be willing to include any and all secular authors in the conversation. The fact that Benedict ended his consideration of post-Aquinas authors with Duns Scotus suggests an ignorance of the culture that Benedict wants to engage. According to Lakers, Scotus was struggling to deal with problems not adequately dealt with by his predecessors. He was not able to reach a solution to those problems, but his struggle led to later developments that were not, as Benedict claims, sad deviations from a search for a truth already stated by Aquinas. The crux of the matter lies in the meanings of the concept of “reason.” Benedict wants to claim that “reason” must co-exist with faith (a point important to make in cultures where religious fundamentalism is increasing), and that reason is incompatible with violence. However, he goes on to say that “reason” means “Greek reason,” reason as enunciated by, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. That reason must co-exist with faith has been a traditional Catholic position. That reason means Greek reason is, in today's world, inexcusably ethnocentric. That Greek reason means reason as enunciated by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas is not only ethnocentric but disregards over seven subsequent centuries of philosophical tradition.

            However, Lakers makes a deeper critique of Benedict's claim. According to him, postmodernist authors claim that “reason” is a fictitious term. That is, to use the concept of reason is to create a fictitious narrative, whose effect is to shut down further conversation.

            “Shutting down conversation” may seem to be an overstatement. No one today wants to be accused of doing that. But when authors claim that a statement is based on reason, the reader has only two choices: reject the claim, or accept the claim and fall silent.

            An example from present-day politics illustrates the point. Catholic pro-life theologians claim that their position on abortion law is based not on religious or denominational belief but on “natural law.” The term “natural law,” which is regarded by almost all social scientists as incompatible with a scientific outlook, creates a claim that an argument is based on reason. Having made that claim, pro-life politicians can only move to raw political power, claiming that, as citizens of a democracy, they have the right to try to influence public policy. I do not dispute the right of anyone to try to influence public policy. What I do dispute is the claim that the grounds for the pro-life position are self-evident, based on reason, and can only be rejected by people who are in bad faith.

            One could make a convincing argument against the pro-life political stance on the basis of the traditional neo-scholastic distinction between what can be known by reason without the aid of revelation, and what can be known only through revelation. For example, I may accept on faith the Church teaching that the human person is present from the first moment of conception. But I reject the claim that such a teaching can be known from reason without the aid of revelation. If the Church in this country were to acknowledge that its claim about personhood is not known by reason alone, it would be forced to quit accusing its opponents of bad faith, and would have to enter into discussion with them on the basis of reasoned discourse, all the while recommending that Catholics be guided by the official teaching.

            The claim that “reason” is a fiction implies a much deeper problem. At first glance it would seem to open moral discourse up to total relativism. Lakers argues that it does not. His argument requires an analysis of the nature of moral discourse, of the way that human beings use language to make moral claims on one another. Any moral claim, he says, is ultimately grounded in one of two metaphors: the metaphor of power and judgment, or the metaphor of intimacy.

            The metaphor of power and judgment assumes that a competent judge can declare a particular behavior to be wrong, and the individual who practices it must be punished. The alternate way is to assume that human beings relate to one another in the hope of realizing a life lived more fully. Lakers argues that such a full life can come only from intimacy, which he defines as involvement characterized by passion, respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. The use of a metaphor of intimacy does not result in purely random outcomes. Those four criteria are demanding. But they do not settle for all times and places the course of action that the individual should pursue.

            The first reaction of Church teachers will certainly be that Lakers’s position is “situational”  ethics, condemned by the magisterium decades ago. Lakers too rejects situational ethics, arguing that it is just another appeal to “reason,” but an appeal that washes out most of the humanly significant aspects of interpersonal behavior. Since we are dealing with philosophy here, not theology, I cannot reject Lakers's ethics simply on the grounds that the magisterium has condemned it. I will need to know why it is to be condemned, and whether the magisterium has listened to my position. I will relate to the magisterium from a metaphor of intimacy, and I will expect it to relate the same way to me.

            It is true that we have not been doing things this way in the Catholic Church. But we have changed a lot of things that were once thought to be self-evident. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians for centuries rejected as immoral the practice of charging interest on loans. By the 18th century both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians, along with the magisterium, had found ways to legitimize the practice. The legitimation occurred because generations of the faithful acted on the basis of the intimate relationships that grow up between living human beings and gradually shape a new moral consensus.

            Today the behavior of Catholics in “western” societies has moved vast distances from the positions claimed by the magisterium. Poll data claim that over ninety percent of lay Catholics in the United States reject papal teaching on contraception, and there is survey evidence that nearly the same percentage of priests agree with the rejection. Simply re-affirming the teaching will not be any more successful than John XXIII’s decree (in the 1962 encyclical Veterum Sapientiae) that Latin should henceforth be the language of all philosophical and theological teaching in all Catholic seminaries throughout the world. Such behavior of the faithful is not always, as some Churchmen would claim, a symptom of a widespread loss of faith. Traditional theology referred to it as the sensus fidelium, the “sentiment of the faithful.”

           The claim that western societies are hopelessly corrupted by secularism, and that the future of the Church lies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is hardly a courageous confronting of the challenges posed by “modernity.” What will happen if and when the faithful in those regions acquire the affluence that characterizes western societies? The lion must be bearded in its den. If the Church cannot construct an argument for its moral positions that can at least dialogue with western secular cultures, it will have abandoned its claim that truth is one--that faith must co-exist with “reason.”

            In short, Lakers argues, the postmodernist critique of “reason” requires that morality be grounded in something other than the traditional moral claim that certain practices are intrinsically immoral and that their immorality can be known by reason alone. Using his background in linguistic philosophy, he builds an argument based on the metaphor of intimacy. Those behaviors which grow out of the metaphor of intimacy are moral; those which do not are immoral. This sounds very much like Paul's argument that the Law cannot save, or the gospels' statements that Jesus' central commandment is a commandment of love.

            In short, Catholic moral theology can no longer ground itself in the concept of “reason.” It must embrace the much messier, but also the much more demanding, use of the metaphor of intimacy in its moral discourse. Only through intimacy can human persons achieve the “fullness of life” that Christians see as the promise made to us by Jesus.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

50th Ordination Anniversary Celebration

On October 14 I celebrated 50 years as a priest. I preached a homily/sermon on that occasion. A couple of people asked for copies, so I reconstructed it from my outline. I want it to appear first on this blog, so I am re-copying it from the earlier posting I made a few days ago.

50th Ordination Anniversary Celebration
October 14, 2012


Readings from 28th Ordinary Sunday of the Year

1. Wisdom 7:7-11
 2. Hebrews 4:12-13
 3. Mark 10:17-30

Fifty years ago this past week the Second Vatican Council opened. I was ordained just four months before that, in June of 1962. I am a “Vatican II priest.” The council was very important for me. It shaped my priesthood.

I am an “aging sixties’ radical.”

I want to share what Vatican II did for me, what it gave me. It gave me four things.

1) First of all it gave me a love of the bible, sacred scripture.

I had a theology professor who told us “Read the bible through at least once during your lifetime.” We Catholics did not read the actual bible very much. We had a set of readings from the bible for each Sunday of the church year. There was an “epistle” and a “gospel” for each Sunday, and we read the same epistle and gospel on a given Sunday every year.

Let me describe how it worked before Vatican II.

The priest would go to the right side of the altar and read the epistle, with his back to the people, silently, and in Latin. Then the priest would go to the center of the altar and the server would pick up the book and its stand (sometimes the book and stand were almost as big as the server). He would go down the three steps to the sanctuary floor, genuflect (holding the book and stand), go up the three steps to the left side of the altar. The priest would go to the book and read the gospel, again with his back to the people, silently, and in Latin. Then on Sundays he would go to the pulpit and read the epistle and gospel again, in English.

That system did not cover very much of the bible, but it provided just about all the bible that most Catholics would hear. For example, there were no readings from the Old Testament, so people would never hear the first reading for today, from the book of Wisdom. Almost all of the epistles were from actual epistles. The gospel passages were limited. For example, people would never have heard the story in today’s gospel, about the rich man.

The Vatican Council said that the riches of the bible should be opened up for the people. Here is what it said:

. . . the holy synod [the council] forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn “ the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine scriptures.” “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore let them go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading.
[Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), par 25]

The quotation about ignorance of Christ is from St. Jerome.

I still get emotional when I read some of the stories in scripture. (I get tears in my eyes very easily, but I don’t want anyone else to see it.) I get tears in my eyes when I read the story in Genesis of how Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, or the story of Tobit, whose father was blind and who was guided by an angel as he went to a foreign land to collect a debt owed his father. The angel tells Tobit that he should marry the daughter of the man who owed the money. Tobit objected. “I have heard that this woman has had seven husbands, and a demon has killed every one of them on the wedding night.” The angel said “ Don’t worry.”

Tobit takes Sarah as his wife. On the night of the wedding Sarah’s father goes out and digs a grave in the garden, just in case. He doesn’t want anyone to know if this husband gets killed. But Tobit and Sarah, helped by the angel, are just fine. Then they return home and the angel cures Tobit’s father’s blindness.

Then there is the story of Ruth, who had married a man from a foreign tribe but whose husband had died. Her mother-in-law decided to return to her own land of Judah. Ruth decided to be faithful to her mother-in-law, even though that meant leaving her own land and family. In the new land she meets a rich man. Her mother-in-law coaches her on how to snare him as a husband, and the snare is successful.

2. The second thing that Vatican II gave me was an appreciation of the value of marriage.

Before the council Catholics were taught that priesthood and religious life were superior to married life. They appealed to passages like today’s gospel, where Jesus says “If you would be perfect, sell what you have and come, follow me.” Priests and religious were the perfect ones, and the rest of the church was like the rich man.

The council said that that approach was wrong. Here is what it said:

Christ our Lord has abundantly blessed this love [married love], which is rich in its various features, coming as it does from the spring of divine love and modeled on Christ’s own union with the church. Just as of old God encountered his people in a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Saviour, the spouse of the church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of marriage. He abides with them in order that by their mutual self-giving spouses will love each other with enduring fidelity, as he loved the church and delivered himself up for it. Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ . . .
[Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), par. 48]

This is very inspiring. It is so inspiring that many of my fellow priests decided to leave the priesthood and get married. I am pleased that most of them are still to this day faithful to the spouses they married.

There were fourteen of us in my ordination class in 1962. Since then three have died. Nine of the remaining eleven gathered here in Quincy to commemorate our ordination. Three of the nine are married. We had a joyful and prayerful time together.

In 1977 I made a Marriage Encounter. That experience changed my life. It brought home to me something that Fr. John Joe Lakers like to say: “We come to God through one another.”

These days there is a trend in the church away from a stress on the community and more on an individual’s relationship with Christ, the way it was before the council. For example, before the council people used to say the rosary or read a prayer book or go to confession during Mass. The council said that people should be actively involved in what goes on at Mass.

Now I know that a personal relationship with Jesus can be a powerful force in one’s life. Many Protestant groups put a great stress on that. I don’t want to put that down. But I meet Christ more in other people. I no longer find the individual experience as compelling as I once did.

God works in our lives in many ways. Both approaches are ways to come to God.

3) The third thing that the council gave me was a respect for freedom of conscience.

When I was ordained I was taught that I was called to convert the whole world to Catholicism. Then in 1960 John Kennedy was running for president, and some Protestant critics pointed out, correctly, that the church taught that if he became president he would have to enforce Catholic policies on the country. For example, he would have to outlaw remarriage after divorce. Kennedy had an advisor, a Jesuit theologian named John Courtney Murray, who argued that a person’s conscience must take precedence over everything else, and that a political leader has no business trying to enforce religious beliefs. That is the position of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

Murray was an advisor to bishops at the council, and he got them to accept the principle of the primacy of conscience. This is a case where the church learned from the experience of the United States: things go better when the government stays out of religious issues.

Here is what the council said:

The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that everyone should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, no men or women are forced to act against their convictions nor are any persons to be restrained from acting in accordance with their convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others.
[Declaration on Religious Liberty, (Dignitatis humanae), par. 2]

I think this was the most revolutionary thing that the council did.

Of course, the council added the condition that your conscience must be correctly formed. This means that if you are Catholic your conscience has to agree with what the church says. Catholics don’t enjoy this freedom.

I say, why not? Catholics should be as free as anyone else. If a Catholic decides in conscience to become a Lutheran, fine. Even if he or she decides in conscience to become an atheist, that is what religious liberty implies.

I respect what people do in conscience. I know that sometimes people will claim to be acting in conscience when they are really acting just out of self-interest, but who am I to judge that? I must respect what people say.

Freedom is precious. Love has to be given freely. When someone loves me, that’s a gift. I don’t deserve love and I can’t buy it. The person giving it must act freely.

4) The last thing that the council gave me was the principle that I have to respect people of other religions. There are two council decrees on this, one on ecumenism, which deals with fellow Christians, and one on non-Christian religions, which deals with Muslims, Buddhists, and similar groups.

We used to be forbidden to pray with Protestants. We could not go into a Protestant church to pray. So for example if I had a son or daughter who was getting married in a Protestant church, I couldn’t even go to the wedding. The council said that God works in other religions. There is some truth in every one. For example, Muslims stress the uniqueness of God, and the need for us to let God guide our lives. the word “Islam” means “submission.”

There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi. It is one of the best documented stories in Francis’s history. The crusaders were in Egypt, trying to battle their way to the Holy Places in Palestine. They were stuck at a siege of the city of Damietta. Francis and one of his companions went to Damietta, crossed the lines into Muslim territory, and got to speak in person to the Sultan Malik al Kamil. The two men spent several days in conversation about God. The Sultan ended up saying “I can’t be a Christian, but I give you and your followers safe passage to the Holy Places.” Franciscans have been in the Holy Land most of the time since then.

Francis came home and wrote a section of his rule that went something like this: “When the friars go among Saracens or other infidels, here are two ways that they can do it. One way is to live among them peacefully. The second way is to speak about their beliefs, if they believe God calls them to do that.”

There is a saying that people attribute to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I don’t think Francis ever stated the principle in those exact terms, but this passage in his rule comes pretty close to it. 

So, to sum up, the Second Vatican Council gave me four things:

It gave me a love for Sacred Scripture.

It taught me the beauty of marriage and of all human  love.

It gave me respect for freedom of conscience.

It taught me to respect people of other religions.

These were great gifts in my life.

That is why I am a Vatican II priest. And maybe even why I am an aging sixties’ radical.